The Federal Copyright Act of 1976 synthesized prior statues, common law and constitutional provisions that were established to protect the rights of authors and artists have to print, copy, publish and sell their works. In 1976, the law was extended beyond the printed word to all mediums including: sound recordings, film, videotape, photographs, plays, choreographic work and pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works. In 1980, literary work status was extended to computer software. Copyright protects "any original work that is fixed in some tangible medium of expression" (17, U.S.C. Section 102(a)). An author's rights cover his or her lifetime plus 50 years. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended this to 75 years beyond the death of the author or creator for works created after 1978 (renewable once by the creator's estate). As of now, all works created since 1926 are under copyright protection.
Copyright law protects the author/creator from the moment an item is created. There is no need for an author/creator to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office. A work does not have to be “published” anywhere to be protected by copyright law. In addition, published works that are out of print may still be protected from copying, depending upon who owns the copyright.
A copyright violator can be sued for loss of profits as well as statutory damages up to $50,000 and payment of attorney fees. In 1982, the law was amended to include a maximum fine of $250,000 and a jail term of up to 5 years for those who seek to make a financial profit from the violation.
Other legislations impacting use of copyrighted works include The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH).