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Copyright Basics

"Five Facts about U.S. Copyright Law" (below) - Short two minute video that explains five key facts about U.S. copyright law.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors and other creators to control their original, creative work. The work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape. Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part, such as:
    • Posting your vacation photos online, such as on Flickr;
    • Emailing a PDF of a paper you wrote to friends;
  • Prepare derivative works, such as:
    • Writing translations, dramatizations, sequels, film adaptations of books, musical arrangements;
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan, such as:
    • Using a print-on-demand service for a book you wrote and selling the copies on Amazon;
    • Taking photographs and selling copies of them at an artists' exhibit;
  • Publicly perform the work, such as:
    • Performing a composition of a musical piece you wrote;
    • Sharing the recorded performance of your music online through YouTube or another platform;
  • Publicly display the work, such as:
    • Hanging a painting on a wall in a public space, such as at a restaurant;
    • Posting a digital photograph on a blog or website.

There are exceptions in the law that allow others to reuse copyrighted works, such as exceptions for libraries and educational institutions. Another exception is the well-known fair use provision, or Section 107 of U.S. copyright law.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works. 

Types of works protected by copyright

Examples of copyrightable works:

  • Novel
  • Scholarly article
  • Architectural design
  • Screenplay
  • Film
  • Music recording
  • Sculpture
  • Photograph
  • Painting
  • Building
  • Poetry
  • Musical composition
  • Video recording of dance choreography

What is not protected by copyright?

Copyright protection does not extend to facts, data, systems of operation, methods, principles, discoveries, and names, titles, and short phrases. However, trademark law may protect names, titles, and short phrases. 

Copyright does not protect data,facts and so on

However, copyright may protect the tangible mediums that express these facts, ideas, and systems, such as: 

  • A scholarly article that expresses certain concepts and ideas
  • An encyclopedia that expresses facts
  • A book that expresses a method of operation 
  • A magazine that expresses a new discovery

Keep in mind that the tangible item, such as the article or book, might be protected, and not the fact, idea, or system within that article or book. 

Need more clarification? Check out this explanation from the University of Michigan about why tables, charts, and graphs may or may not receive copyright protection.

Is copyright forever?

For works created since March 1, 1989, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 120 years from the date of creation.  Works created before this date can have various copyright term lengths. The Digital Copyright Slider can be used to help define how long the protection of an item may last.