Film and Sound Works

Sound recordings as well as films/motion pictures are entitled to Copyright protection under U.S. law.  A sound recording is a work resulting from the fixation of a series of musical or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work.  A film or motion picture is an audiovisual work consisting of a series of related images which, when shown in succession, impart an impression of motion, together with accompanying sounds, if any.  

There are not many sound recordings in the public domain in the United States.  Sound recordings fixed in a tangible form before February 15, 1972, have been generally covered by common law.   In some cases, though they are covered by the anti-piracy statutes enacted in certain states, they not protected by federal copyright law.  The 1971 Sound Recordings Act, and the 1976 Copyright Act, provides federal copyright for unpublished and published sound recordings fixed on or after February 15, 1972.  Recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, are still covered, to varying degrees, by common law or state statutes.  

For sound recordings fixed on or after February 15, 1972, the earliest year that any will go out of copyright and into the public domain in the U.S. will be 2043.  Sound recordings fixed and published on or after February 15, 1972, and before 1978, which did not carry a proper copyright notice on the recording or its cover entered the public domain on publication.  From 1978 to March 1, 1989 the owners of the copyrights had up to five years to remedy this omission without losing the copyright.  Since March 1, 1989, no copyright notice is required.

In case of motion picture, a copyright is automatically secured when the work is created and “fixed” in a copy.  The Copyright Office registers claims to copyright and issues certificates of registration but does not “grant” or “issue” copyrights.  Only the expression (camera work, dialogue, sounds, and so on) fixed in a motion picture is protectable under copyright.  Copyright does not cover the idea or concept behind the work or any characters portrayed in the work.  Works that do not constitute a fixation of a motion picture include:

• a live telecast that is not fixed in a copy

• a screenplay or treatment of a future motion picture

A motion picture includes feature film, documentary film, animated film, television show, video, videogame, and other audiovisual work.

The author of a sound recording or motion picture may also preregister the work for copyright.  Preregistration proves beneficial if the author if:

  • thinks that it is likely that someone may infringe the work before it is released; and,
  • the author has only started the work but has not finished it.

The author can preregister the work only if:

  • the work is unpublished; and,
  • creation of the work has begun; and,
  • the work is being prepared for commercial distribution; and,
  • the work is one of the following: motion picture, musical work, sound recording, computer program, book, or advertising photograph.

 In case of sound recording, authorship may be contributed by the performer or by the record producer and many times is contributed by both.  All sound recordings, including those having musical compositions as well as other types of underlying works, e.g., spoken poems, are eligible for preregistration.  In addition, it is required that:

  • at least some of the sounds must already have been fixed in a sound recording medium;
  • the claimant in the work can verify that he has a reasonable expectation that the work will be commercially distributed

A motion picture may embody the contributions of many persons whose efforts are brought together to make a unified cinematographic work of authorship.

For a motion picture to be eligible for preregistration, it is required that:

  • creation and fixation of the work in a motion picture format must have already commenced, i.e., filming must have begun;
  • the claimant in the work can verify that he has a reasonable expectation that the work will be commercially distributed.

Inside Film and Sound Works