Skip to main content

Copyright Across Campus: Copyright Basics

Copyright and the U.S. Constitution

"To 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;"                                                                                                                                       (U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8)

The goal of the copyright clause in the U.S. Constitution was to help and encourage authors, scientists, inventors and other artists to continue their creative endeavors. To do this the U.S. Constitution calls for those creators to have an exclusive right to their works for a limited time.

The rationale being, that if creators received a direct benefit from their work in their lifetime, this would help them continue creating new works and making new discoveries. After enough time elapsed for those creators to benefit sufficiently, those works would pass in to the public domain, where all members of society would be able to access, study, question and possibly build upon those works. This process was considered to be an important part of developing a rich and active intellectual life in the culture of the new nation.

The copyright landscape has changed significantly since 1787, with author’s transferring their rights to publishers, corporate institutions or other individuals. These actions add another layer of complexity to copyright issues. Also the U.S. has passed other laws to help bring copyright standards in line with those of the international community. Due to its currently complexity, copyright questions are often approached with anxiety. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that the original goal of copyright law was to encourage intellectual endeavors, not hinder them!

Copyright 101

What is copyright?

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. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works."

Under 17 U.S.C. Section 102 the following are protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound Recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

It does NOT cover;

  • an idea
  • a procedure
  • a process
  • a method of operation
  • a concept
  • a principle
  • a discovery

"regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

Who owns the copyright?

  • The author
  • Those deriving rights through, or from, the author
    • This can include publishers, record labels, descendants of the author, etc...
  • If the work is done as a work for hire, the employer of the author is the copyright holder
  • If the work has more than one author, two or more authors can own copyright

The duration of copyright has been altered over the years by many different laws. To determine the current duration of a work's copyright please consult this resource created by the American Library Association.

Digital Copyright Slider


In general, copyright duration lasts 70 years after the death of the author.