Listeners and viewers may be able to watch TV and listen to radio without paying, but broadcasters must either own copyrights or receive permission from copyright holders before broadcasting. Each country, in agreement with international conventions, enforces copyright protection, but new technologies such as streaming Internet video add legal complexities to the issue of intellectual property protection.
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The U.C. Copyright Office defines copyright as the legal protection of a “work,” the specific expression of an idea or concept rather than the idea or concept itself. This definition, which includes dramatic performances for broadcast, gives copyright holders the right to determine who can legally distribute the work. Although “broadcast” may refer to emerging digital technologies, it traditionally refers to wireless transmission of television or radio signals to all receiving stations in a given area.
Copyright holders of radio or television content grant licenses to broadcasters for distribution. In the case of collaborative projects such as television shows, the company that produces the overall work holds the copyright on the final product. In some other cases, such as a live broadcast of a sporting event or public discussion, no written or artistic content exists for an author to copyright, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. In these cases, most countries assign the copyright to the broadcaster, and future distribution or rebroadcast requires the broadcaster’s permission as copyright holder in lieu of an author.
Before broadcasting a performance, broadcasters must obtain the permission of the performance’s copyright holders, resolving issues concerning which geographical areas will receive the broadcast, how long the permission will apply, how the broadcaster will reimburse the copyright holders financially, whether other rights come with the right to broadcast and whether the broadcaster will hold the right exclusively or share it concurrently with other broadcasters.
Most nations’ copyright laws abide by the terms and provisions of an international agreement called the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention creates a framework of minimum expectations for each country to follow in protecting its authors’ works. Another international agreement, the Rome Convention, began extending specific protections to broadcasters, record companies and individual performers in 1961. The World Intellectual Property Organization administers both of these conventions. The World Trade Organization administers yet another agreement called Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
As traditional media merge with digital media, new questions and problems arise regarding copyright protection. The emergence of live streaming audio and video as a medium for music, television programs or film clips has raised new issues pitting the concept of “fair use” against copyright protection and broadcast rights. CNET, for example, reported on a 2006 case in which a judge ordered a website to quit streaming live motorcycle racing audiocasts copyrighted by a sports company.
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