The 1976 Copyright Act is a U.S. law created to bring previous copyright laws up to date with 20th century advances in law and technology. Copyright is the legal protection provided to the author of a creative work. These creative works can include books, films, television programs and artwork, as well as such things as architectural designs and computer software. Many of these media did not exist when previous copyright law was enacted in 1909. The 1976 Copyright Act was passed by Congress in October 1976 and went into effect on 1 January 1978.
In addition to updating existing copyright law, the 1976 Copyright Act redefined some aspects of the law. The U.S. had unofficially joined the international copyright agreement known as the Berne Convention 20 years earlier, but U.S. law had not been updated to officially include these protections. In accordance with the Berne Convention, the 1976 Copyright Act protected works copyrighted in other countries. Most creative works were also protected by copyright for the lifetime of the author and 50 years thereafter.
According to the 1976 Copyright Act, copyright protects a creative work the moment it is “fixed” in a tangible medium, such as a recording, piece of film or written page. This differed from the previous law, in which date of publication was the start of copyright protection. According to the act, protection applies even if the work has not been officially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. If a work is registered, the act specifies that two copies of the published work must be submitted along with registration materials, or one copy of an unpublished work.
The 1976 Copyright Act gives the author of the work exclusive rights to adapt, distribute, display or license the work, or to transfer those rights to another with a signed legal document. In most cases, the author is the person who created the work. If that person was employed by someone else under the provisions of a work-made-for-hire contract, however, the employer is the official author of the work and owner of the copyright.
The act also provides the legal qualifications for fair use, the legal right to include small segments of a copyrighted work in another work without violating copyright law. Examples include literary criticism that cites a passage from a book, or teaching and research materials that use a work as an example of the subject under discussion. Fair use had been in effect for years, but the 1976 Copyright Act was its first official codification into U.S. law.