How Does Copyright Law Work?

In September 2015, a judge ruled that the song “Happy Birthday” does not fall under a valid copyright Although many people are unaware, for decades the song could not be used commercially without incurring royalties to Warner/Chappell music group

They claimed they owned the rights, and collected an estimated 2 million dollars a year off of it But, how was something so simple and universal even considered to be owned by a single company? How exactly does copyright work? Well, copyright is protection for tangible expressions of an idea It is intended to give the creator of something original the ability to use and make money from it without others being able to use it But copyright law isn’t a blanket ban there are a number of limitations that do allow for widespread use

First and foremost, it is important to note a distinction between copyright and trademark You might see those frequently represented by the symbols C and TM Although they generally protect the derivatives of an idea, also called “intellectual property,” each applies to different types of property Copyright tends to cover literary and artistic work, for example movies and books Trademark is more often used to protect a company’s brand, and would include things like logos and names

Trademark is the reason you don’t see thousands of knock-off McDonalds restaurants, while Copyright is the reason you can’t just print and sell the Lord of the Rings books, or download pirated movies But what you are and aren’t allowed to do in regards to intellectual property is entirely based on which country you’re in, and how strict their copyright laws are Now, most of the world adheres to the Berne Convention, which was the basis for most modern copyright law Its greatest contribution was to establish the concept that the creator of a piece of work has automatic copyright from the moment of its creation in a fixed, tangible form Still, there are small differences between countries in how that law is implemented and enforced

Looking at US copyright law, there are specific limitations on how long an idea can be controlled by a single person This is usually pegged to expire 50 to 100 years after the death of the creator, after which time it falls into public domain When something is in public domain, anybody can use and reproduce it There are also instances where small portions of copyrighted works can be used without violating copyright This is referred to as “fair use” and is usually for educational purposes, parody, criticism, research, and so on

One of the biggest reasons for this is to prevent censorship by saying that any mention of an existing work would violate its copyright Copyright law is complicated and dense, and it doesn’t even apply in a number of countries which haven’t signed any international copyright treaties But in the rest of the world, the ability to control and profit off of your ideas is an important aspect of the economy and intellectual property There’s more to copyright law than meets the eye — and the same goes for the First Amendment Learn more about how complicated freedom of speech and religion are in this video

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