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Copyright: Home

Overview of Copyright and Permissions, including Licensing and Fair Use


What is Copyright?

Copyright symbol. Unknown author / see below
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The following attempts to clarify copyright, which often defies clear definition. That said, this guide is not legal advice nor intended to replace legal advice; rather, it is for educational purposes only

Copyright provides the creator of an original work--a creation that has a modicum of creativity and is in a tangible medium--five exclusive rights over that work:

The right to:

  1. copy the work
  2. distribute the work
  3. create derivative works (e.g. translations, adaptations, abridgments, etc.)
  4. publicly perform the work
  5. publicly display the work

Any use of the creation by someone other than the copyright holder that falls in any of these five criteria infringes copyright.

How Is a Work Copyrighted?

Copyright is granted automatically: one does not have to apply for or have a copyright notice. One secures copyright merely by creating something that has a modicum of creativity and is in a tangible medium.

What Is Copyrighted?

Copyright law protects any original work--any work that has at least a modicum of creativity and that has been fixed in a tangible medium of expression. These copyright-protected works can include writing (both fiction and non-fiction), art, music, choreography, movies, television shows, images, and other audiovisual works. Computer programs, sound recordings, and architecture may be copyrighted. And the tangible medium of expression may include paper, canvas, a website, or any other medium in which the work can be communicated or perceived.

What Is Not Copyrighted?

The following is not copyrighted and therefore can be freely copied, used, and distributed:

  • Any work whose copyright term has expired 
    • for works created in the USA, this means works created before the present year minus 95 years (i.e. in 2020, works created before 1925 are no longer copyrighted) 
  • U.S. government works 
  • Works from countries that do not have a copyright agreement with the U.S. 
  • Works whose creator has explicitly abandoned its copyright. This status may be made explicit by the Creative Commons license CC0
  • Original ideas that are merely in one's head or communicated via speech are not copyrightable. That said, as soon as those ideas are written or put into a tangible medium, they are copyrighted.

Public Domain: the public domain is comprised of all creative works that are not copyrighted: i.e. works whose copyright has expired (e.g. Shakespeare's works), been waived or forfeited (e.g. works labeled CC0), or works for which copyright was inapplicable (e.g. government works). Works in the public domain can be freely copied, used, and distributed.

However, a reproduction created after 1925 of a work that is in the public domain is copyrighted, unless the reproduction is merely a slavish / artless reproduction--a reproduction without creativity that merely reproduces the original without enhancing or adding to it. In other words, if I take a basic picture of the Mona Lisa that merely reproduces the painting--say, straight on, standard lighting, etc.--then my picture is not copyrighted because it shows no creativity. But if I photograph the Mona Lisa artfully, perhaps by using special lighting, odd angles, etc., then that photograph may very well be copyrighted.