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Copyright for Undergraduates

copyright overview

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection granted to authors that gives them exclusive rights to their "original works of authorship" (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 102)

United States copyright law has its foundation in Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, where Congress was granted the 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." Current US copyright law was established by the Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) and has been updated numerous times since then. 

Under US copyright law, authors are granted six exclusive rights:

  1. To make copies of the work
  2. To make new works based on the original copyrighted work
  3. To sell, distribute, rent, lease, or lend copies of the work
  4. To perform the work in public
  5. To display the work in public
  6. In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (such as over the radio)

Those who want to use a copyrighted work in one of the ways listed above will need the permission of the author, unless their use falls under one of the exceptions to copyright law. Otherwise they are infringing upon the rights of the author and may be subject to legal actionAuthors can also choose to transfer some or all of their rights to others, temporarily or permanently, through the use of a license

What Can Be Copyrighted?

The following categories of works are eligible for copyright protection:

  • literary works (which covers all nondramatic texts)
  • musical works (including any accompanying words)
  • dramatic works (including any accompanying music)
  • pantomimes and choreographed works
  • pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

To receive copyright protection, a work has to be an original and fixed expression.

What does this mean? First, a work must be original, meaning that it originated from the author's mind. It is not necessary for the work to be so unique that nothing like it has ever been created before, but it must be independently created by the author and not copied from another work. Although two works may happen to bear a strong resemblance to one another, they can both be eligible for copyright protection as long as neither was copied from the other. Furthermore, only a minimal amount of creativity is required for a work to be considered original. 

Second, a work has to be fixed in some tangible medium so that it can be perceived, copied, or communicated in some other way. A work could be fixed by being written on paper, painted on a canvas, recorded on film, stored as computer code, or a number of other ways. 

Finally, copyright protects expression, not the ideas or facts that are being expressed. Authors can freely borrow ideas or facts from other works, but they cannot copy the exact expression of the original author.

What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

The following are not eligible for copyright protection and can therefore be borrowed by authors without permission or payment:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Facts, news, and research
  • Works in the public domain
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression

What Is the Public Domain?

The public domain is made up of all works that are not eligible for copyright protection, which includes most works created by the United States government, as well as works that no longer have copyright protection. All works in the public domain are free to be copied and used without restriction. Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain. 

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Copyright does not last forever, but determining when a work's copyright expires can be difficult. The basic term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years. The rules for works created before 1978 (when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect), works created by corporations, and foreign works are more complicated. See this chart on copyright length from Cornell to help you identify if a work is copyrighted and how long its copyright protection will last.

How Do I Get a Copyright?

As soon as you have fixed your original expression, it receives copyright protection. You do not have to register your work or place a copyright symbol or notice on it, and it does not matter if your work is published or unpublished. However, placing a copyright symbol or notice on your work can help others recognize that the work is copyrighted and help them identify you as the copyright holder in case they want to request permission to use your work. A copyright notice (such as Ⓒ 2016 Jane Doe) informs the public that a work is protected by copyright, shows the year of first publication, and identifies the copyright owner. In addition, registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office creates a public record of your copyright claim and provides additional legal benefits in case you should need to take legal action to protect your work