Federal Copyright Statutes – Sources of Rights for Artists

Posted: February 19, 2015 By Krigel & Krigel

Federal Copyright Statute, Title 17 of the United States Code, has superseded any case law or state statutes that existed prior to the enactment of that law.

I.  Rights

A.  Right to Reproduce.

B.  Right to Adapt (produce derivative works)

C.  Right to Distribute (publish)

D.  Right to Perform

E.  Right to Display Publicly

A.  Right to Reproduce.  

At its core, “copyright” is literally the right to prevent someone from making copies of your work.  This does not protect the idea embodied in the work, but the specific way you have expressed that idea.

Infringing a copyright does not mean making only an exact copy, but a substantially similar copy.  Removing a few elements or adding a few elements does not protect the person who makes the unauthorized copy.

B.  Right to Adapt.   

The author/artist has the exclusive right to create derivative works, art that is derived from your copyrighted work.  You have the right to use an image that was originally an oil painting or a sculpture on head bands, hoodies, or hood ornaments.

BUT – in the U.S. the rights of the author / artist are limited by doctrines of “fair use,” “appropriation” and “transformative use.”  U.S. and European courts have drawn the line differently on the limits of an author’s right to control derivative works, and the rights of artists to incorporate the work of other artists in their own pieces.  Hint 1.  You can get away with more “appropriation” in the U.S., for the time being.  Hint 2 – In Europe don’t try to appropriate and transform another artist’s work unless you are Jeff Koons with too much money and view lawsuits as valuable publicity.

There are limits on an author’s right to control copies, such as the “fair use” that may be made of an image of a work of art by a critic or an educator.

II.  Registration

Form VA

Artists will use Form VA for copyright registration of published or unpublished works of the visual arts. This category consists of “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works,” including two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, architectural designs, photographs, prints and art reproductions, jewelry designs, maps, globes, charts, technical drawings, diagrams, and models; with the textual elements that accompany them, such as such as comic strips, greeting cards, games rules, commercial prints or labels, and map text.

If the work of art consists primarily of text, use form TX, but it would be uncommon to register a singular work of art or a multiple (such as a print) on form TX even if the piece contained substantial amounts of text or was primarily text.  Example – “LOVE” by Robert Indiana, along with “EAT” and “DIE.”

III. Duration

A.  If an individual work, duration is the life of the author/artist plus 70 years.

B.  If a joint work, duration is 70 years after the last author has died.

C.  If created by an employee the piece is a “work for hire,” and the duration is (1) 95 years from date of publication; or, (2) 120 years from date of creation, whichever is shorter.

D.  If created before 1978, special rules because copyright term was originally 28 years, with one 28 year renewal.


*This article is very general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. Readers with legal questions should consult with an attorney prior to making any legal decisions.

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