Academy Awards 2014: Ellen DeGeneres and company.
Celebes crested macaque selfie, 2011
The founders of the United States of America felt that copyright was important enough to enshrine in the Constitution:
The Congress shall have the power . . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
What is sometimes overlooked about copyright law is that it serves a dual purpose. One purpose is to incentivize creators ("Authors and Inventors") by allowing them to profit from their work; however, a second purpose of copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" by allowing subsequent creators to make use of previous work. That is why copyright—monopoly status for a work—is bestowed for “limited Times” rather than permanently. For example, if the Disney Corporation was not allowed to profit from its creative work, there would be no incentive for its studios to create films; however, if copyrights were perpetual, Walt Disney very likely would not have been able to transform his small animation studio into an entertainment powerhouse by creating feature-length films based on prior works, such as Snow White and Cinderella, that had become part of the public domain.
When someone uses a copyrighted work without permission, this is known as infringement. While infringement is a violation of the law, in all but the most extreme cases infringement is a violation of civil law, rather than criminal. In other words, someone who infringes on copyright is far more likely to be sued by the copyright holder -- the person(s) or organization that owns the copyright of a work -- than to be arrested by law enforcement.
Fair use is a part of copyright law that allows, in certain cases, the legal (non-infringing) use of copyrighted works without the need to obtain permission from the copyright holder.
See the Legal Notices section of this guide for more information.
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