1976 Revision of Copyright Act

Mary Gormandy White
Copyright Handbook

The 1976 revision of Copyright Act legislation updated the original 1909 law and forms the basis of modern copyright law in the United States.

About the 1976 Revision of Copyright Act

The Copyright Act was originally passed in 1909, but it was amended and updated in 1976 with the changes going into effect in 1978. The 1976 revision represented a significant overhaul of the law, introducing the concept of "fair use" and defining the rights of persons who hold copyrights. The changes are credited with simplifying the Copyright Act and providing strengthened legal protections for those who create original works.

Highlights of the 1976 revision of Copyright Act legislation include:

Fair Use Doctrine Defined

In 1976, the concept of fair use was defined, providing specific conditions under which the use of copyrighted work, by individuals other than those who hold the copyright, is allowed under the law. The doctrine of fair use allows for limited usage of protected works for educational, research, news, and other purposes. In order to determine whether or not fair use has occurred, one must consider the purpose for which the information is used, the creative nature of the work, the quantity of the work used, and whether or not the usage impacts the marketability of the work by the copyright holder.

Copyright Expiration Changed

Prior to 1976, copyrights were held for an initial period of time and could be renewed periodically for up to a maximum of 56 years. The amendment clarified the time frame in which copyrights expire based on the lifespan of the copyright holder, defining the copyright period as 50 years beyond the holder's lifetime. The time frame was extended in 1998, following which time protection was extended so that copyrights expire 70 years after the death of the original copyright holder, following which time the work becomes part of the public domain.

Publication Criteria Lifted

Under the original Copyright Act, written works had to be published in order for the creator to be afforded legal protection. This changed with the 1976 revision, which specified that original work does not have to be published in order to be considered the legal property of the author.

Copyright Law in a Nutshell

Copyright Symbol Necessity Removed

The 1976 update specified that the copyright (©)symbol is not necessary for a work to be considered copyright protected. Before the revision, any work that did not include this mark was considered to be in the public domain, regardless of authorship. With the update, original works are protected under federal law whether or not the © mark has been affixed to them.

Rights of Copyright Holders Defined

The 1976 revision of the Copyright Act specified that individuals who hold copyrights have exclusive rights to reproduce, commercialize, perform, display, and produce derivative works from their original work.

Copyright Transfer Procedure Clarified

Once the 1976 revision of U.S. copyright law went into effect, the process by which copyright could be transferred from the original author to another person or entity was clearly defined. Copyright can only be transferred in writing, with the copyright holder signing a document that expressly states that he or she is transferring copyright ownership to the new owner.

Learn More About Copyright Law

For more information about copyright legislation see Copyright.gov, the official website for the United States Copyright Office. You'll find additional details about the law, relevant regulations, and instructions for filing to receive formal copyright registration documentation.

1976 Revision of Copyright Act