Know Your Rights

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights that give you control over how your creative work is used.  Copyright protects expression, not ideas, so copyright protection occurs the moment your expression is fixed in a tangible, or concrete, medium.  That means that the idea you have isn’t protected until, for example, you write it down, save it in your computer, record it on a memory card in your camera, sketch or paint it.  In the United States, your exclusive copyrights originate in the Constitution, (Article 1, section 8, clause 8) which gives Congress the  power to pass laws to promote the progress of science and art by giving creators exclusive rights to their creations for limited periods of time. Copyright law, which has changed many times since 1790, is currently governed by the Copyright Act of 1976, and as amended, by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998.

Copyright protection extends to:

  • literary works such as poems, novels and plays
  • movies
  • choreographic works, musical compositions,and audio recordings
  • works of visual art such as drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures
  • software
  • radio and television broadcasts of live or taped performances
  • and in some jurisdictions, notably those in Europe, databases

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, facts, styles or techniques that may be included in a work.

While the rights and benefits conferred by copyright apply universally to all works protected by copyright, there are certain exceptions and anomalies specific to the music industry, so the following information may not be accurate for music copyrights.


Copyright Essentials


Early Copyright Dispute

Copyright disputes are not new.  One of the earliest disputes occurred in Scotland in 557 A.D. between Abbott Finnian of Moville and St. Columba when St. Columba copied the Abott’s Psalter, (precious illustrated volumes containing the Book of Psalm), without the Abbot’s permission, devaluing the book.  St. Columba refused to return the copy and the dispute led to the Battle of Cooldrevney in 561, in which 3,000 men were said to have died.


Photography and Copyright: The Challenge

Photography was not granted copyright protection until Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1870, prompted partly by the power of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs. Even so, the constitutionality of that act was challenged in the landmark case, Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53 (1884).  Burrow-Giles, which had infringed a portrait of Oscar Wilde taken by the then famous photographer, Napoleon Sarony, argued that photography was a mechanical process, not an art.  The Court disagreed and found that Sarony exercised creative and artistic control over lighting, composition, the background, and Wilde’s pose.  This case has been cited many times in the past 100 years as photography has continued to be challenged as not creative enough to merit copyright protection.