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Standards & Guidelines » Intellectual Property

US Copyright: Fundamentals and Documents

This section includes the primary documents and resources that define US Copyright Law. The secondary sources included here are summary tools created by experts and widely accepted in community practices for understanding the application of basic concepts in copyright law.

Title 17 of the US Code: Copyright

Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code

The Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School, offers a user-friendly searchable version of the law.

Visual Artists Rights Act - VARA (1990)

Rights of certain authors to attribution and integrity” - Section 106A, US Code - Title 17 - Copyrights -

Definition of a “work of visual art” in Section 101, US Code

(1) a painting, drawing, print or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author, or, in the case of sculpture, in multiple cast, carved, or fabricated sculpture of 200 or fewer that are consecutively numbered by the author and bear the signature or other identifying mark of the author; or (2) a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author.

“A work of visual art does not include–(A)(i) any poster, map, globe, chart, technical drawing, diagram, model, applied art, motion picture or other audiovisual work, book, magazine, newspaper, periodical, database, electronic information service, electronic publication, or similar publication; (ii) any merchandising item or advertising, promotional, descriptive, covering, or packaging material or container; (iii) any portion or part of any item described in clause (i) or (ii); (B) any work made for hire; or (C) any work not subject to copyright protection under this title.

Work Made for Hire

Definition in Section 101, US Code:

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or

(2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. For the purpose of the foregoing sentence, a ‘supplementary work’ is a work prepared for publication as a secondary adjunct to a work by another author for the purpose of introducing, concluding, illustrating, explaining, revising, commenting upon, or assisting in the use of the other work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustrations, maps, charts, tables, editorial notes, musical arrangements, answer material for tests, bibliographies, appendixes, and indexes, and an “instructional text” is a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.

See also “Works Made for Hire Under the 1976 Copyright Act - Circular 9, United States Copyright Office

Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (1990)

Scope of exclusive rights in architectural works” - Section 120 - US Code - Title 17 - Copyrights

See also “Copyright Claims in Architectural Works” - Circular 41, United States Copyright Office

Fair Use

A critical feature of US copyright law is the doctrine of fair use, which allows creative and scholarly reuse of copyright materials, subject to some limitations. In the visual arts, fair use facilitates the incorporation of third-party materials in copyright, such as images of artworks and text quotations, in new works of scholarship and in new artworks.

According to Section 107 of the US Copyright Law, materials under copyright may be reused for the purposes of “criticism, comment . . . teaching, scholarship, [and] research”—the primary activities of many professionals in the visual arts. Similarly, artists may use copyrighted materials in the creation of new works, particularly when the preexistent work is transformed or presented in a context that gives it new meaning.

CAA has published a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, which summarizes fair use, its application, and possible limitations on it. The Code discusses five common activities in the visual arts: analytic writing, teaching about art, making art, museum uses, and online access in memory institutions, such as libraries, schools, museums, archives, and study centers. A highly useful introduction, “Fair Use Today,” by the attorney and legal scholar Peter Jaszi, is presented in as an appendix to the Code.

See also Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998)

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998)

The US Copyright Office offers a summary of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), codified as Public Law 105–304.

The Library of Congress defines exemptions to the DMCA in “Rulemaking on Exemptions from Protection on Circumvention of Technological Measures that Control Access to Copyrighted Works” (including “Statement of the Librarian of Congress on the Anticircumvention Rulemaking,” “Determination of the Librarian of Congress and Text of the Regulation,” and “The Recommendation of the Register of Copyrights” (2010).

Copyright Term Extension Act (1998)

The “Duration of Copyright” is codified in Chapter 3 - US Code - Title 17 - Copyrights.

Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2001 (TEACH Act)

The TEACH Act amends chapter 1 of title 17, US Code, relating to the exemption of certain performances or displays for educational uses from copyright infringement provisions, to provide that the making of copies or phonorecords of such performances or displays is not an infringement under certain circumstances, and for other purposes.

Copyright Registration Forms

Paper and Electronic Forms
A Guide for Completing your Electronic Copyright Registration"

Orphan Works

“An ‘orphan work’ is any copyrighted work—book or other text, picture, music, recording, film, etc.—whose copyright owner cannot be identified or located.

“Works can become ‘orphaned’ for a number of reasons: the creator died and his or her heirs cannot be found; the work was made anonymously to begin with (e.g., a graffiti image on the street or an anonymous photo found in an attic or in a flea market); the owner sold the copyright rights in the work and did not register the transfer; the corporate publisher has gone out of business . . . the list goes on.”

Read the complete text at

US Copyright Office Orphan Works

Public Domain

Legal definition of Public Domain:

“A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”

Center for the Study of the Public Domain (Duke University School of Law)

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States [and Other Countries]” by Peter B. Hirtle

Copyright Law: A Practitioner’s Guide, by Bruce P. Keller and Jeffrey P. Cunard (Practicing Law Institute, 2001–12)