1950 - 1997

Highlight: Congress Passes the Current Copyright Act

On October 19, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed the Copyright Act of 1976 (Public Law 94-553), the first major revision of the copyright law since 1909. The law, with certain exceptions, went into effect on January 1, 1978, and superseded the 1909 Act. The 1976 Act extended federal copyright protection to all works, both published and unpublished, once they are fixed in a tangible form.

The term of copyright protection for new works was greatly altered, from a term of years with a renewal period, to the life of the author plus fifty years. Accordingly, the right to terminate between the initial term and the renewal term fell away, and was replaced with the right to terminate transfer after 35 years, subject to certain procedures. Congress also altered the renewal provisions for works copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, making second-term renewal automatic, and the correlating registration optional. Finally, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright to today’s term of the life of the author plus 70 years.

The Act also clarified the exclusion of copyright in government works to those created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties. Subsequent amendment in 1990 further clarified the role of state government agencies and employees in the copyright system, by providing that states and state employees are not immune from suit for copyright infringement under the 11th Amendment.

Since its enactment, the 1976 Act was amended multiple times to respond to rapidly changing technologies. To address the issue of new mediums of expression, Congress added protection for computer programs (December 12, 1980) and mask works fixed in semiconductor chips (November 8, 1984). To address new modes of copying and transmission of otherwise copyrighted works, Congress provided new rights in the rental, lease, or lending of a computer program (December 1, 1990) and in the public performance right for the digital transmission of sound recordings (November 1, 1995) as well as established a royalty attached to the sale of audio home recording materials for owners of sound recordings and writers and publishers of musical works (October 28, 1992). Congress also created an exemption to infringement for the use of copyrighted works by accredited nonprofit educational institutions engaged in distance education (November 2, 2002).

Finally, the 1976 Act was amended multiple times to reflect the United States’ treaty obligations with other nations. In 1989, the United States became a signatory to the 1971 Paris Act of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The Berne Convention required its signatories to extend copyright protection to architectural works and protection to visual artists certain moral rights of attribution and integrity. On December 1, 1990, Congress passed the Visual Artist Rights Act and Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act to provide these protections through the copyright law. Then, on December 8, 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act was enacted to extend copyright protection to certain motion pictures first fixed without copyright notice in Canada or Mexico between January 1, 1978, and March 1, 1989.