Legal Memorandum: Federal Copyright Law

Issue: Generally, how does the federal copyright law work?

Area of Law: Intellectual Property Law
Keywords: Copyright; Unpublished works; Exclusive rights to the creator
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 510 U.S. 517; 811 F.2d 90
Cited Statutes: 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, et seq.; 17 U.S.C. §§ 102, 106; 17 U.S.C. § 501(a); 17 U.S.C. § 301; 17 U.S.C § 411(a); 17 U.S.C. §§ 201-202
Date: 10/01/2014

Copyrights are governed by the U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, et seq. which defines the protection, provides remedies for infringement, and preempts state or common law rights that purport to regulate copyrights.  The purpose of the law is to encourage is to encourage production of original literary, artistic, and musical expression for the good of the public.  Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 524 (U.S. 1994).

A copyright grants a bundle of exclusive rights to the creator of “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression . . . from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated . . . either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”  17 U.S.C. §§ 102, 106.  Specifically, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.  17 U.S.C. § 501(a) provides a cause of action by the copyright owner against anyone that infringes upon these rights.

Copyright protection extends to unpublished works including letters, like the letters and e-mails in the case at hand.  See 17 U.S.C. § 301; Harper & Row, Publrs. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985); Salinger v. Random House, Inc., 811 F.2d 90, 94 (2d Cir. 1987) (“The author of letters is entitled to a copyright in the letters, as with any other work of literary authorship”).  A copyright does not need to be registered to be valid.  However, absent a few exceptions, under […]

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