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Copyright Information Center: Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights provided by the laws of the United States
(Title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship.

This protection is available to both published and unpublished works that are fixed in a tangible medium.   Copyright does not protect ideas; it protects the expression of ideas.

The law gives the owner of copyright the following exclusive rights:
• To reproduce the work (i.e. to make copies);
• To prepare derivative works (i.e. to make a movie from a book or to translate a work into another language);
• To distribute copies publicly;
• To perform the work publicly (i.e. a play or movie);
• To display the work publicly; and
• In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of
a digital audio transmission.

The owner of the copyright may transfer all or part of these rights to others. See the section on Author Rights.

Subject to some exceptions described in this guide (including fair use), if a person exercises any of these rights in another’s work without permission, the person may be liable for copyright infringement. 

What Does Copyright Protect

Copyright PROTECTS original works fixed in a tangible medium (this includes works found on websites, blogs, and other electronic mediums):

  • literary works
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Copyright DOES NOT protect:

  • procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation (these fall under patent law)
  • ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents (these do not meet the criteria of originality)
  • other unoriginal or unfixed works

How Does a Creator Get Copyright?

  • How does the creator of a work get copyright?

Copyright protection begins as soon as a work is created.  Copyright is secured automatically when a work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression." This means that the work must exist in some physical form for at least some period of time, no matter how brief. Copyright does not protect ideas that are not expressed in tangible form. Written works, photographs, and computer files are all examples of tangible media.

  • Do I have to register my work with the Copyright office or include a ©?

Registration, publication and a copyright notice are no longer legally required in order to have copyright.
There are advantages to giving notice of copyright ownership, however, including putting others on notice of the author’s claim of rights and taking advantage of the availability of certain damages in connection with an infringement claim.  A copyright notice includes the symbol, the author’s name and the year.
Registration also provides several advantages. It establishes a public record of the copyright claim, and it is necessary for works of U. S. origin before an infringement suit may be filed in court.

  • Who owns “works for hire”?

Works for hire are works prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment and certain specially ordered or commissioned works prepared under written agreement.  In the case of works made for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

The duration of copyright has changed over time. For the most recent copyright law established in 1976 the duration of copyright was extended to

  • the life of the author plus 70 years
  • If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first

See here for a full listing of copyright terms or use the Digital Copyright Slider to help determine if a particular work is still under copyright.

Works whose copyright term has expired are part of the public domain.