What is the 1976 Copyright Act?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin
Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act to bring the nation's laws up to date with technological advances.
Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act to bring the nation's laws up to date with technological advances.

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specifies that two copies of the published work must be submitted along with registration materials, or one copy of an unpublished work.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.

Discussion Comments


@Mammmood - Yes, I am pretty sure that you can. I don’t know why you would want to do that with his work or any other work of classic literature. There are volumes aplenty so it’s not like there’s a big demand for that.

But it makes sense to have fixed limits on the copyright. After all, what is a deceased author going to do if you sell his work – sue you?

As long it has his byline, that’s what matters. Now if you sell his stuff and put your name as the author that’s a different story. That's called plagiarism, and I don't think there is statute of limitations on that.


@allenJo - I’m surprised to read that the copyright act of 1976 grants authors a lifetime plus fifty years of protection. I would have thought that works would be protected for even longer than that.

Does that mean I can dig up Mark Twain’s writings, self publish them and sell them on my own? It’s not something that I want to do necessarily but I am just using it as an example. I thought it would be hundreds of years before works fell into the public domain.


@hamje32 - I totally agree. Google was hit with a major class action lawsuit for their Google books search. In my opinion this is one of the biggest copyright infringement cases around, on par with the music industry slamming now defunct Napster for illegal file sharing.

I see no way that Google can justify their position on legal or other merits. Sure, I appreciate the ability to search a book, but I don’t need half the book scanned and put online in order to know what’s in it.

With other sites like Amazon, you can decide – as the author – to offer a preview mode for the book, and allow the first three chapters or so to be previewed. But the point is that decision is in your hands and not that of a massive search engine.


I think “fair use” for art copyright has been especially difficult to define, particularly in the Internet age. How much of an original work can someone cite within the bounds of fair use?

Since the term is open to interpretation, I can see different opinions here. One area where I think it’s really been an issue has been with Google.

Google made the decision to put all of the world’s books online, an ambitious project if there ever was one. Clearly that is not fair use by any measure as I see it.

For some of these books, Google offered only preview mode. You could get to read sample chapters or parts of the book. Supposedly this was fair use and honored copyright commitments.

But even then, the sample chapters offered in preview mode were almost a third of the book. Clearly, I think that’s crossing the line.

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    • Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act to bring the nation's laws up to date with technological advances.
      By: vlad_g
      Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act to bring the nation's laws up to date with technological advances.