Animators and the Law – Copyright

This is the second in a series of posts that take a look at just some of the many legal aspects of the animation industry.

While it is not the be all and end all of the profession, copyright is employed fairly heavily by industry players both large and small and it does affect an animator’s work in some very real ways.

Copyright is defined as:

The exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Via: Google

The very first thing to understand about copyright is what is covered and what is not. Furthermore, it is important to note that copyright is not a ‘right’, it is a legal privilege extended to creators by the US Constitution.

US Federal copyright law: The Facts

  • Covers anything considered “original works of authorship” (authorship is defined as being the written word, lyrics, melodies, visual works and, for some reason, software)
  • Granted the moment something is put in “fixated form”, no registration with the Copyright Office is necessary.
  • Terms last for 70 years beyond the death of the author or if done under “corporate authorship” terms are 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever is shorter).
  • Places responsibility on the copyright holder to actively enforce their copyright.
  • Applicable in the US only!

As an animator, how does copyright affect you?

First of all, it depends on the work created. Is it your own idea done on your own time*? If so, then copyright will rest with you. If it is work done “for hire” then it does not.

“For hire” is an exception to the rule that the creator of the work is considered the author or owner of the copyright. It is also called “corporate authorship”. A good example of this is anything you create for a studio. While you created the actual content, you were paid by way of compensation for it and thus the studio retains the copyright for themselves.

As mentioned in the ideas post, copyright only covers actual creations only. So get those ideas down on paper!

Copyright may also affect you when it comes to your personal works. While you are free to use copyrighted material for influence, direction and inspiration, you cannot create works that could be considered as infringing on the original piece. An example would be you creating a CGI panda who is learning the ways of kung fu and calling him Bo; Jeffrey Katzenburg may want to have a word with you about that.

Do My Works Have To Be Covered By Copyright?

No. As important as copyright is, it is also worthwhile knowing that submitting works under copyright is not mandatory. While it is an automatically granted legal privilege, you are quite free (at least in the US) to publish your work under a multitude of alternative methods if you so wish. Alternatives such as the public domain and the various Creative Commons licenses.

Nina Paley is well known in the animation community for the copyright issues that she had to deal with in order to get her self-animated feature film Sita Sings the Blues released. The gist of it is that she wanted to use a particular jazz song from the 1920s but whose copyright holder was demanding $250,000 in exchange for the necessary licenses.

As a result, she has become an advocate for the ideals of copyleft and permitting people to copy, modify and redistribute works without restriction. Sita Sings the Blues has become immensely popular since it was made available online and its popularity has brought Nina worldwide fame, accolades and work.

The post you are reading right now is published under a Creative Commons license with the only restrictions being that you provide attribution and publish any alterations to the post under the same CC license.

If you would like to learn more about copyright, please consult the following websites:

US Copyright Office

Wikipedia article on copyright

Creative Commons


*your own time is defined as being that outside of the office/studio. Creations made on company time can (and have) been considered the property of the company not the individual, so create your personal stuff at home!

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at pay and cost as the relate to animation production.

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  12. Hello Sir,

    I recently read your blog about copyright for animators. I was wondering if you could help me with a quick question. If I animate 1 minute of a famous movie (say Titanic) and post it on my YouTube, would I violate copyright law? I would like to use the same dialogue and the same characters but just animate 1 minute of the movie through 3D animation and make the characters a little funnier …say Rose and Jack Dawson a little funnier but I will use the same dialogues…Would YouTube flag me?

    Thanks in advance for your response,


    1. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that exact question. Perhaps see if other people are doing the same and whether they are bing flagged and that may give you an indication of what to expect.

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