Skip to main content

Copyright: Copyright Basics

Guide for using copyrighted materials for students and faculty.

What is Copyright?

Copyright law, as defined in Title 17 of the United States Code, protects "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" for a limited period. Copyright protection includes, for instance, the legal right to publish and sell literary, artistic, or musical work, and copyright protects authors, publishers and producers, and the public.  Copyright applies both to traditional media (books, records, etc.) and to digital media (electronic journals, web sites, etc.), and covers eight general categories of works.

Ownership of a copyrighted work includes the right to control the use of that work. Use of such work by others during the term of the copyright requires either permission from the author, statutory exemption, or reliance on the doctrine of fair use. Failure to abide by copyright regulations will expose the user to a claim of copyright infringement for which the law provides remedies, including payment of money damages to the copyright owner.

Basics of Copyright Law

The Copyright Act of 1976 is the law governing United States copyright. The law has been amended since 1976, refining the scope of the act. Below are some basics of the law.

What does copyright cover?

Copyright covers "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression."
Those notes you scribbled on a napkin at the coffee shop are a fixed tangible medium of expression.
Copyright protection is automatic from the moment of creation.

Is a work copyrighted if it doesn't have the copyright symbol?

Yes, a creative work is copyrighted from the moment it is "fixed" in any "tangible medium of expression."  The copyright symbol used to be required, but as of the signing of the Berne Convention in 1988, the symbol is no longer required. (Copyright Office Circular 3)

Is a work copyrighted if it is not registered with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.?

Creators and authors are not required to register their work. Copyright still takes effect without it. However, if a work is registered, authors are entitled to certain remedies in case of infringement that they would not otherwise be entitled to.

What kinds of works are covered by copyright?

  • literary works
  • musical works including words
  • dramatic works including the music
  • pantomimes and choreographed works
  • pictoral, graphic and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Not covered: ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, discoveries, recipes (Copyright Law of the US)

What is the term (length) of copyright?

The term of copyright is life of the author plus 70 years.

In situations where a work is commissioned or created by an employee "within the scope of employment," the term for a "work for hire" is "95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation." (Copyright Office Circular 9)

What are the exclusive rights of a copyright holder?

  1. To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  2. To prepare derivative works
  3. To distribute copies or phonorecords to the public by sale, or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending.
  4. In case of literary, musical or dramatic or choreographic works, pantomimes, and  motion pictures or other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  5. In case of literary, musical or dramatic or choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictoral, graphic or sculptural works, including individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work
  6. In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

What does phonorecord mean today?

Phonorecords are "material objects in which sounds, other than those accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, are fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the sounds can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term “phonorecords” includes the material object in which the sounds are first fixed. (Copyright Law Section 101 Definitions)

 Is my dissertation or thesis copyrighted?

Yes, automatically, and registration is not required with the Copyright Office. There are, however, advantages to registering if you wish to be able to seek damages in the case of infringement.

Copyright Resources

Digital Copyright Slider
A visual representation of copyright duration.

Copyright Term Chart
Maintained by Cornell University, another visual representation of copyright duration.

Copyright.gov
The U.S. Copyright Office aims to "promote creativity by administering and sustaining an effective national copyright system."

Catalog of Copyright Entries
Google's searchable scans of the entire catalog of copyright registrations.

The Campus Guide to Copyright Compliance
Designed for academic institutions, this guide helps answer questions ranging from basic copyright law to the more complex topics of ILL and e-reserves.

Copyright & Fair Use (Stanford University Libraries)
An extensive collection of copyright resources, tools, commentary and primary materials.

Copyright Resources for Schools and Libraries
A collection of annotated links on copyright from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Copyright Advisory
A comprehensive copyright resource from Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office.

Copyright Watch
A collection of copyright laws from all over the world.