United States Copyright Act of 1976

From Academic Kids

The Copyright Act of 1976 is a landmark statute in United States copyright legislation. It spelled out the basic rights of copyright holders, codified the doctrine of "fair use", and converted the term of copyrights from a fixed period requiring renewal to an extended period based on the date of the creator's death.


History & Purpose

Before the 1976 Act, the last major revision to statutory copyright law in the United States occurred in 1909. In deliberating the Act, Congress noted that extensive technological advances had occurred since the adoption of the 1909 Act. Television, motion pictures, sound recordings, and radio were cited as examples. The Act was designed in part to address intellectual property questions raised by these new forms of communication. (see House report number 94-1476)

Aside from advances in technology, the other main impetus behind the adoption of the 1976 Act was the development of and the United States' participation in the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) (and its anticipated participation in the Berne Convention). While the U.S. became a party to the UCC in 1955, the machinery of government was slow to update U.S. copyright law to conform to the Convention's standards. In the years following the United States' adoption of the UCC, Congress commissioned multiple studies on a general revision of copyright law, culminating in a published report in 1961. A draft of the bill was introduced in both the House and Senate in 1964, but the original version of the Act was revised multiple times between 1964 and 1976. The final version was adopted into law as title 17 of the United States Code in 1976 and became effective in 1978. (see House report number 94-1476)

Significant Portions of the Act

The 1976 Act, through its terms, preempts all previous copyright law in the United States.

Exclusive Rights

Section 106 granted five exclusive rights to copyright holders: (1) the right reproduce (copy), (2) the right to create derivative works of the original work, (3) the right to sell, lease, or rent copies of the work to the public, (4) the right to perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, motion picture, or other audiovisual work), and (5) the right to display the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion picture, or other audiovisual work). The Act was amended in 1995 to included a sixth exclusive right—the right to perform a sound recording by means of digital audio.

Fair Use

Additionally, the fair use defense to copyright infringement was codified for the first time in section 107 of the 1976 Act. Fair use was not a novel proposition in 1976, however, as federal courts had been using a common law form of the doctrine since the 1840s (an English version of fair use appeared much earlier). The Act codified this common law doctrine with little modification. Under section 107, the fair use of a copyrighted work is not copyright infringement, even if such use technically violates section 106. While fair use explicitly applies to use of copyrighted work for criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research purposes, the defense is not limited to these areas. The Act gives four factors to be considered to determine whether a particular use is a fair use: (1) the purpose and character of the use (commercial or educational, transformative or reproductive); (2) the nature of the copyrighted work (fictional or factual, the degree of creativity); (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion of the original work used; and (4) the effect of the use upon the market (or potential market) for the original work. The Act was later amended to extend the fair use defense to unpublished works.

Term of Protection

Previous copyright law set the duration of copyright protection at twenty-eight years with a possibility of a twenty-eight year extension, for a total maximum term of fifty-six years. The 1976 Act, however, substantially increased the term of protection. Section 302 of the Act extended protection to "a term consisting of the life of the author and 50 years after the author's death." In addition, the Act created a static seventy-five year term (dated from the date of publication) for anonymous works, pseudonymous works, and works made for hire. In 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyright protection to the duration of the author's life plus seventy years for general copyrights and to ninety-five years for works made for hire.

See Also



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