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Copyright Basics

What is a copyright?

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted by law to a creator of an original work to control the use of his or her work by others. These include the rights to copy, distribute, publicly display and/or adapt the work. By law anyone else wishing to use this original work must receive permission from the copyright owner to do so, and, in some cases, pay royalties in exchange for this right.

Copyright law in the United States is authorized by the Copyright Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) of the U.S. Constitution. This clause states:

The Congress shall have Power [. . .] 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.

What is protected by copyright? 

Copyrights protect original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. This includes:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works
  • Dramatic works
  • Choreographs
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

What is not protected by copyright? 

If the work does not meet the requirement of being "original…fixed in a tangible form of expression," it is not eligible to be protected by copyright. Materials that cannot be copyrighted include:

  • Ideas, procedures, processes, methods and systems
    A recipe's instructions are protected by copyright, but not the list of ingredients.
  • Names, titles, slogans and short phrases
    Movie titles and advertising slogans can receive trademark protection, but they are not protected by copyright laws.
  • Facts, news and other information or knowledge designated as common property
    Calendars, tape measures, height and weight charts, etc.
  • Works created by the United States Government
    For example, building codes cannot be copyrighted.
  • Works not fixed in a tangible medium of expression
    If it isn't written down or recorded, it cannot be protected by copyright.
  • Works in the public domain
    See the next section for information on works that are deemed part of public domain

How long does copyright last?

Copyright is established from the very moment an original work is created. Once a work exists in a tangible medium of expression, it is protected under federal law. This includes not only published material, but also notes, photographs, homework assignments, emails and rough copies.

To make a work publicly available, establish royalties and/or prove ownership of copyright in a court of law, authors usually register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. If the work is created as part of an employment contract, copyright automatically transfers to the employer, who will then register with the U.S. Copyright Office. More information on how copyrights are registered can be found here.

Once a copyright is established, it stands until 70 years after the death of the author who created the work. If the copyright is owned by the author's employer or a company, the copyright expires 95 years after the date of publication.

After the copyright period expires, the work enters the public domain. This means the work is no longer protected by copyright law, and the public is free to use or reproduce the work as they see fit. Also, the work is never again protected by copyright law, as no further attempts to reestablish copyright are permitted.

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