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Copyright : Overview

What is copyright?

"Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. An original work of authorship is a work that is independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work is “fixed” when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed." 

Source: Copyright Basics: Circular 1

What are the rights of copyright?

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Source: ​​​​​​17 U.S.C. §§ 107-122

What can have copyright?

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds
  • Architectural works

Source: ​​​​​​17 U.S.C. §§ 102

What CANNOT have copyright?

  • Ideas, Methods, and Systems
  • Inventions
  • Recipes
  • Names, Titles, Short Phrases
  • Typeface, Fonts, and Lettering
  • Layout and Design
  • Blank Forms
  • Familiar Symbols and Designs

Source: Works Not Protected by Copyright: Circular 33 

How long does copyright last?

Works created on or after January 1, 1978

Single Author: 70 years after death of author 

Two or more authors: 70 years after last surviving author's death 

Work or hire and anonymous works: 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter

Works from 1923 to 1977

Maximum of 95 years from creation 

Works prior to 1923 

Works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain and are not protected by copyright. 

Source: Duration of Copyright: Circular 15a

Can I use material not protected by copyright?

Works not protected by copyright are considered part of the Public Domain and are freely available for anyone to use. Work can enter the Public Domain because it cannot be copyrighted, it was copyright but the copyright expired or was not renewed, or the creator of the work entered the work into the public domain through a Creative Commons or similar license. Many Public Domain and Open Access resources can found bound in the A-Z Resource List

Copyright Disclaimer

Copyright law is complicated and legal concerns should be addressed by legal counsel. All copyright guidance on this page is informational and not legal advice.

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