Copyright Protection Laws, A Brief Explanation

  • Published
  • By SMSgt Ken Johnson
  • 117th Air Refueling Wing

During my more than 30-year career as a personal and professional military photographer and videographer, I am often asked to duplicate photographs, video tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc. It seems like a fair question. After all, I have the equipment along with the knowledge and expertise to accomplish this seemingly small task. As I try to explain the reason why I am not able to accommodate their request I notice a sense of bewilderment and frustration, which on occasions turn into anger. Some of the comments I receive include "I don't intend to sell it, I just want a copy for myself" or "This is an Air Force CD, it's ok to make copies since we are part of the Air Force".


In fact copyright laws are designed to protect the maker of a product and to help maintain ownership, control, and possible profit from their work. An employee of an individual or organization is not exempt from copyright protection laws from their perspective employer.


Most people recognize the © symbol as an indication that the material is copyrighted or it may have a statement like "Duplication of this material without the express written consent of the owner is prohibited by law". Some items may not have any type of symbol or warning but may still be protected under copyright laws.


Just because an item is protected under copyright laws doesn't mean you can't use it. You will just need to get written permission from the copyright owner or agent. In this case, it is better to ask for permission rather than beg for forgiveness. Below is an excerpt on Copyright Laws from the Public Affairs Broadcaster CDC 3N052, pages 58-59.


2-3. Copyright Laws

As a PA journeyman, you will undoubtedly have to deal with copyrighted material. For example, any time you want to use copyrighted material (or material that has the potential of being copyrighted) in your base newspaper or on your website, you must first ask the owner of the copyright, in writing for permission. In this section, we look at what a copyright is, the law and publication regarding them, copyright usage, and how to obtain a copyright release.

020. Copyrights

A copyright is the exclusive right of a writer, composer, artist, photographer, and so forth, to own, control, and profit from the production of his or her work. The types of creative expressions eligible for copyright protection include literary, graphic, photographic, audiovisual, and musical works. Other things, such as personal letters or diaries may be protected by copyright, even though they may not have been published and may not contain a copyright notice. AFI 51-303, Intellectual Property--Patents, Patent Related Matters, Trademarks and Copyrights, which governs Air Force use of

copyrighted material, defines "copyright" as the exclusive right granted under Title 17, USC.

The law 

Title 17, USC, preempts all state copyright laws, and establishes a single federal copyright system. Under this law, the author owns copyright from the time a work is first presented as a copy, by any method that is sufficiently permanent to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for more than a transitory period. Registering a claim to copyright, depositing copies in the United States Copyright Office, and including a copyright notice on published works are formal requirements of the law; however, omitting any one of these requirements does not invalidate an author's copyright.

A copyright is protected for the life of the author, plus 70 years; however, there are some exceptions to this, as indicated in AFI 51-303. The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, and to perform or display certain types of works publicly. Any of these acts, if done without the copyright owner's permission, may be infringement. AFI 51-303 and the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual have copyright guidelines that give exclusions for "fair use" and certain other specified reproductions considered to be in the public interest.

Despite copyright protection, a subsequent author is free to report the facts that a copyrighted work contains; but he or she may not use the same, or essentially the same, combination of words, structure, and tone. Although copyright generally prohibits the use of another person's protected

2-13 expression, the doctrine of "fair use" permits, in certain circumstances, the use of copyright material without the owner's permission. See the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual for guidelines in determining whether the doctrine "fair use" applies.

Policy on using copyrighted material 

A government agency has no more right to use copyrighted material without permission than any commercial publishing house does. It is Air Force policy to recognize that a copyright owner has a legally enforceable right. Copyrighted materials will not be used to any extent that would clearly infringe upon the copyright in works prepared by the Air Force without the written permission of the copyright owner, unless approved beforehand by the Air Force Judge Advocate General's Office (HQUSAF/JACN).

021. Obtaining copyright releases

Any Air Force activity, including PA, planning to use copyrighted material must submit a request to the copyright owner (or their agent) for permission to use the copyrighted material free of charge. When preparing a request for a copyright release, forward a copy of it to your base legal office for review. Ensure you have fully complied with all of the requirements of AFI 51-303, Intellectual Property-Patents, Patent Related Matters, Trademarks and Copyrights, when you are using or requesting to use copyrighted material. Also, make all requests in accordance with the following requirements:

1. The request must be for no greater rights than actually needed.

2. The request must fully identify the material for which you are obtaining permission.

3. The request must explain the proposed use and state the conditions of use, so that the copyright proprietor or agent need only give affirmative consent to the proposed use.

4. The request must be submitted in two copies to the copyright proprietor so they may retain one copy and return the other signed to show assent to the request.

5. A self-addressed return envelope will be enclosed with the request.

When using copyrighted material in your newspaper, ensure that you give prominent and appropriate credit, with the copyrighted material, to the copyright owner. You also should acknowledge that the copyright owner granted you permission to use their material.

Addition answers to copyright questions can be found  here:



SMSgt Ken Johnson

117ARW/Public Affairs