The Copyright Office

Under the current law a copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 50 years.  However, works created prior to 1978 were copyrighted for 28 years and the copyright could be re­newed for one more term.  Works protected by copyright in 1978 received a special ex­tension making them eligible for protection for 75 years from the date of first publication or registration.

You can find out who owns a copyright in a variety of ways.  If there is a copyright notice on the work the name of the owner is in­cluded.  If the work was registered with the Copyright Office you can consult its Catalog of Copyright Entries.

The Copyright Office is online. Its web page can be entered through the Library of Congress homepage ( You can search the copyright registration database, obtain forms for registering your copyrights in .PDF format, and obtain copies of publications explaining copyright and procedures to follow in registering. There is also a Forms Hotline, (202) 707-9100, where you can leave a message re­questing specific forms or publications, which will be mailed to you within a few weeks.

Using material protected by copyright

If you want to use copyrighted material in work you are creating you generally must obtain permission of the copyright owner and you may have to pay a royalty for the privi­lege.  When negotiating for use be sure you understand the extent of permission you need and are being given.

For example, a magazine publisher may want to be the first to publish your work and will use it only once. Therefore, it might negotiate to buy First North American Serial Rights. If the publisher wants more extensive rights it would expect to pay more for greater use of the work. A nonexclusive license, permitting the owner to sell an article to others as well will cost less than an exclusive, which denies the owner further income from the article for a period of time or indefinitely.

The Copyright Act includes the "Fair Use" doctrine which permits limited use of material without permission for educational, scholar­ship, research, news reporting, criticism or comment.  In determining whether a use falls under the doctrine courts look at the nature of the use (whether it is commercial, for educa­tional purposes, etc.); the nature of the copy­righted work (is it published or unpublished); the amount of material used and its signifi­cance to the copyrighted work; and the effect the use will have on the market for the copy­righed work. This is an unsettled area of law and, before using any material without the owner's permission you should seek legal ad­vice. There are no hard guidelines on what is a fair use. You can't say, for example, that if you use 100 words from someone else's work you will be covered by the Fair Use doctrine.

Protecting your work

You can protect your ownership rights by doing two things, affixing a copyright notice ("Copyright, Year of Publication, Your Name") to each work and registering your work with the Register of Copyright, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559. The notice tells anyone who wishes to reproduce the work where to get permission and mini­mizes the possibility that an infringer can claim not to know the work was copyrighted. The notice is no longer a requirement for copyright protection, but it's a good idea to put it on your work.  Registration within 90 days of publication allows you to claim dam­ages and other remedies under the law.  If you register later you can still sue an infringer but you will only be entitled to an order barring further infringement and monetary damages accruing after you registered the work.

The benefits of registering your copyrights are significant. It costs $20 to register a work, but under most circumstances you can register multiple works at a time using Form GR/CP as well as the appropriate form for each work included. You only pay one registration fee for the group.

In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, a publisher of a periodical generally owns all of the material prepared by its em­ployees in the course of their normal work. Such work is called a "work made for hire."

In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., et al.

In re "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation, 821 F.2d 139 (2d Cir. 1987), Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., et al., 805 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1986) — Wrote amicus curiae briefs on the issue of public access to pretrial discovery documents in civil cases. The brief in In re "Agent Orange," filed in the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of eight media organizations, dealt with post-settlement access to discovery materials. The brief in Anderson, filed in the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, dealt with pretrial access to discovery documents.

The Florida Star v. B.J.F.

The Florida Star v. B.J.F — Wrote amici curiae briefs filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a Florida statute prohibiting publication of a rape victim's name violates the First Amendment and that a violation of the statute constitutionally cannot support a $100,000 award for emotional distress. discovery documents.

Butterworth v. Smith

Butterworth v. Smith — Wrote amici curiae brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of nine media organizations, arguing that a state statute prohibiting grand jury witnesses from commenting publicly on their testimony, even after the grand jury has adjourned, is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

The News Media and the Courts

Buenos Aires & LaPlata, Argentina, September 15 - 18, 1992. Designed and led series of seminars for judges, lawyers, journalists and law and journalism students as Argentina prepared for oral, public criminal trials. Sponsored by USIA’s U.S. Speakers Program. The Role of the Press in a Democratic Society — Montevideo, Uruguay, September 20 - 21, 1992. Designed and led seminar for judges and lawyers on issues such as censorship, libel, invasion of privacy, media coverage of the courts and protecting confidential sources. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.