What Is Copyright?
Copyright is a legal protection granted to owners of copyrighted works that protects against unauthorized use. It also grants rights to users of copyrighted works the rights to use those works without permission in certain circumstances. Authors’ rights and users’ rights are in tension, but the balance between them helps achieve the constitutional purpose of copyright law.
Congress is allowed by the Constitution to create laws
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
The Copyright Act, 17 USC 101 et seq, provides the copyright laws of the United States.
Under U.S. law, copyright-eligible works are “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Three criteria must be satisfied:
- Original: To qualify as original, the work must be created independently and must have “at least a modicum” of creativity.
- Authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works and sound recordings, as well as other types of creative works including computer programs, architectural works, and compilations and derivative works. There must be a human author – works created solely by animals or supernatural beings are not eligible.
- Fixed: A work must also be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” by or under the authorization of the author. Fixation is writing or otherwise recording copyrightable expression, whether it is on paper or a hard drive or in some other tangible form like painting or sculpture. Unfixed works like dance and music performances are not copyrightable (unless they are fixed, for example with videorecording).
What’s Not Covered
US copyright law does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” That means slogans, names, short names, methods, systems, processes, recipes, and procedures aren’t copyrightable.
The Copyright Rights
The copyright holder has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:
- 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; and
- in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Who Holds the Copyright?
The initial copyright holder is either the person (or people) who actually created the work or, in some cases, that person’s employer. That initial copyright holder can then transfer or license copyright to others.
Under current U.S. law, copyright starts the moment a work is fixed and lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. For corporate works the duration of the copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
For further details, see Cornell’s chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.
What’s the Public Domain?
Public domain works aren’t protected by copyright – either because they aren’t protectable or because the copyright has expired. An easy way to remember what’s in the public domain is FRIDGE:
- Facts: Not protectable by copyright
- Recipes/Methods: Not protectable by copyright
- Ideas: Not protectable by copyright
- Dedicated Works: Works in which the author has dedicated the work to the public domain, irrevocably giving up their rights
- Government Works: Works created by US Government employees in the course of their employment aren’t protectable by copyright law in the United States
- Expired Works: Works in which the copyright has expired are no longer protected by copyright and are considered to be in the public domain.
You can find more about the Public Domain here.
- What is Fair Use?
- What is the Public Domain?
- How do I obtain permission to use copyrighted works?
- What is Creative Commons?
- How do I Use Video?
- What is Open Access?
- Copyright Resources
This work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. It incorporates materials from the University of Michigan Library Research Guide on Copyright Basics and The Ohio State University Copyright Services Guide, both of which are available under the same CC-BY license.