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Copyright: Basics

About this guide

This guide is NOT intended to offer or substitute for legal advice. It is intended to provide information and guidance in the application of the U.S. copyright law.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S Code)The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright as "a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression." It is derived from the Copyright Clause of the Constitution, which empowers Congress "[t]o 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 works are protected by copyright?

  • literary works (all works expressed in writing, both in print and digital form, including computer software)
  • pictorial, graphic and sculptural works (e.g., paintings, drawings, carvings, photographs, clothing designs, and textiles)
  • sound recordings (e.g., songs, music, spoken word, sounds, and other recordings)
  • dramatic works and accompanying music (e.g., plays and musicals)
  • pantomimes and choreographic works (e.g., the art of imitating or acting out situations, and the composition of dance movements and patterns, including those accompanied by music)
  • audiovisual works (e.g., motion pictures, animation, television programs, and videogames) 
  • architectural works (e.g., buildings themselves as well as blueprints, drawings, diagrams, and models)
     (adapted from  copyright.gov)

Copyright in a nutshell

  • Copyright law applies to nearly all creative, scholarly, and intellectual works
  • Copyright covers both published and unpublished works
  • The U.S. copyright law applies to domestic and foreign works
  • To be protected by the copyright law, works must be:
    • original 
    • creative
    • fixed in a tangible medium (i.e., written, recorded or captured electronically) 
  • Works are protected automatically, without copyright notice or registration
  • The creator of a work is that work's copyright owner, unless:
    • the work has been done for someone else ("work for hire")
    • the creator of the work transferred copyright to someone else (e.g., to a publisher)
  • Copyright owners hold a "bundle" of exclusive rights which include:
    • reproduction of works
    • distribution of copies
    • public performance and display of works
    • making of derivative works
  • Copyright owners can give, transfer, or sell all or some of their rights to others
  • Copyrighted works can be used with permission from their copyright owners
  • Certain uses of copyrighted works are not infringements on copyright law (e.g., fair use)
  • Copyright expires
  • Currently, copyright protection is in place for the life of the author plus 70 years

What is NOT protected by copyright?

  • works not fixed in a tangible medium of expression (i.e., not written, recorded or captured electronically)
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans
  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices (as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration)
  • compilations of facts (e.g., the white pages of telephone books, standard calendars, and height and weight charts)
  • works produced by the U.S. government 
  • works for which copyright has expired
  • ​works in the public domain

                   (adapted from copyright.gov)