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Understanding Copyright: Copyright Basics

This is an overview for understanding Copyright and Fair Use

What is Copyright

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the untied states to the authors of "original works of authorship" that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.  These rights are granted by the Congress of the United States in Title 17 of the United States Code.

Copyright in the United States grants authors and creators a limited monopoly over the works they create 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.

For works to be protected they need to:

  1. an original work of authorship 
  2. created independently by a human
  3. display some minimal degree of creativity
  4. be fixed in a tangible form of expression for more than a brief period of time

Copyright provides the owner of the copyright with the exclusive right to:

  1. Reproduce the work in copies
  2. Prepare derivative works base upon the work
  3. Distribute copies to the public
  4. Perform the work publicly
  5. Display the work publicly 
  6. Perform the work by means of digital audio transmission

Exceptions to the Exclusivity

Congress did, however, grant exceptions and place limitations upon these rights.  Not all works can be protected, protection lasts for a set period of time, and there are circumstances where a use is deemed to be fair.  

Additionally, there are other forms of intellectual property protections such as patents and trademarks.  These will not be addressed in this LibGuide.

Examples of copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including lyrics
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds
  • Architectural works

For an in-depth discussion of what can be protected, see:  Copyrightable Authorship: What Can Be Registered

Do works have to be registered to be protected:

No.  Copyright extends immediately to all works that are fixed in a tangible format.  Works created after March 1, 1989 are not required to be registered nor are they required to have any markings of Copyright.

However, the United States Copyright Office does encourage registration as it aids in identifying ownership and could be useful in any legal challenges. 

What is not protected by Copyright:

There are two broad categories of works that are not covered by Copyright

Works not eligible for copyright

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • With a few exceptions, works authored by the United States government or employees thereof in the course of their duties as an employee

While the above examples may be exempt from Copyright, they may subject to other protections such as Trademarks.

For a discussion of what is not protected, see:  Works not protected by Copyright: Circular #33

Works in the Public Domain:

The public domain is a term that refers creative materials that are not covered by intellectual property laws such as trademarks, patents, and copyrights.  The public owns these works and authors no longer retain specific rights.  Works arrive in the public domain in five common ways:

  1. Their term of protection has expired
  2. The author did not follow renewal rules
  3. The author placed the work in the public domain
  4. The work was never eligible for protection 
  5. The work was produced by the United States government, with exceptions

The typical term for Copyright protection extends the life of the author plus 70 years.  However, there are notable exceptions such as:

  1. Anonymously authored works or works where the author cannot be identified- 120 years from the creation date
  2. Works-Made-for-Hire - 95 years after creation

The Library at Cornell University presents a useful chart to determine timeframes for when a work enters the public domain:  Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Who is an author or creator

The terms author and creator are used synonymously to describe a person or persons responsible for the intellectual content of a work.  When there are more than one author involved the work is considered to have joint authorship with each author holding equal rights.  The amount of work contributed by each creator does not play a role in determining ownership, ownership is held jointly and equally.  Examples might include:

  • Two or more authors for a book or journal article
  • A writer of lyrics and the composer of music
  • An author of a book and the illustrator of the book

In most cases the length of copyright protection extends through the author's lifetime plus 70 years.  In the case of joint ownership, the protection extends through the life plus 70 years of the last surviving author.

What about students

Copyright protection extends to any author regardless of their student status.   This is particularly important to remember in the classroom.  Students own the copyright to anything they create, either individually or jointly in the case of group projects.  

The instructor must gain permission from the student to reuse their works.  If a student is a minor, permission must be gained from their legal guardian.  Some examples might include

  • An instructor would like to use a student's paper as an example for subsequent classes
  • An instructor would like to post a student created video on a website dedicated to examples of excellent student production 
  • An elementary school principal wants to create a public display of student artwork at the local community center

What are Works Made for Hire

Works that are created while in the employ of another entity fall into a different category.  The copyrights to these works are retained by the employer not the creator.  Works Made for Hire are those works that:

  • Are prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment
  • Are works specifically ordered or commissioned for use

These works belong to the employer not the employee.  However, there are exceptions and specific rules hat must be met in order for a work to fall into this category.   Works Made for Hire: Circular #30 is an excellent resource for more information.

Some examples might include:

  • This LibGuide
  • A curriculum developed by a designer employed by a University for delivery at that University.  
  • An instructional video written and performed by an employee of a database vendor
  • A line of baked goods developed by an employee of a specific bakery

Who is the Copyright Owner

In the vast majority of instances the author/creator is the initial owner of a work's copyright.  However, that ownership can be passed to another entity.  Examples might include:

  • The author dies.  In which case, the copyrights pass to heirs or other designees for a term of 70 years
  • The author sells or otherwise passes the copyrights to another entity such as a publisher
  • The author places the work in the Public Domain 
  • The work is considered Made For Hire

How Long are Works Protected

The general rule is works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.  However, over the years Congress has amended and updated various aspects of Title 17.  The Library at Cornell University has an excellent guide for Copyright Terms and the Public Domain.

Creative Commons License 4

Additional Resources