Copyright is a federal law that provides exclusive rights and protections for creators and authors of "original works." The authority of this law comes from the U.S. Constitution, where it says that "The Congress shall have Power To ... promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
These rights are granted to authors and creators as soon as a work is put into some tangible form or medium, which means some physical or electronic form. These rights are also granted for published and unpublished works. However, copyright does not protect ideas. It only protects the expression of the ideas.
Image in the Public Domain
The copyright law provides an exclusive bundle of rights to the copyright holder. These rights include:
These rights are guaranteed to the creator or author as soon as an item is created, and the creator or author no longer needs to include the copyright symbol or register their copyright in order to be protected. However, a copyright owner may choose to register their copyright with the US Copyright Office to receive added benefits in the event an infringement case arises. Those wishing to register their copyright can expect to pay a nominal fee and will need to include a copy of the work.
The purpose of copyright is to benefit the public by advancing the progress of science and the useful arts by limiting the duration of copyright to allow the public to build upon works and to ensure progress. The founding fathers realized that in order for progress in all forms to continue, they needed to balance the needs of the author or creator to allow them to make a living off their labor and creations while considering the needs of society in general.
The rights of the copyright holder do not last forever and the duration of these rights have changed several times over the years. For those works that are created today, you can expect the duration of copyright to last for the lifetime of the author or creator plus an additional 70 years (Section 302, US Copyright Law).
For older works, it can be challenging to determine if a work still has a copyright or not. Generally, items created before 1923 are in the Public Domain. However, Chapter 3 of the US Copyright Law provides guidance for a variety of scenarios.
Items created by companies or organizations as "works for hire" have a longer copyright. Anonymous work and Pseudonymous works also have longer copyright durations. In general, the copyright duration for these categories of works is 95 years from when the work is first published. In the event when the publication cannot be determined or if the work was not published, then the copyright duration is 120 years from when the work was first created.
Basically, any work that is original, creative, and fixed in a tangible form is protected by copyright. There is no set rule or definition for creativity as long as it is more than a list of facts. Examples of these forms include anything written or typed, stored in a computer, or recorded in an audio or video format.
Section 102 of the US Copyright law identifies 8 basic categories of works that are protected by copyright. They are as follows:
Basically, just about anything you can see, hear, or touch may be protected by copyright. Find specific examples of items protected by copyright in the Copyright FAQs.
In addition, any work created on or after January 1st, 1978 is automatically covered by copyright with or without the copyright symbol or the copyright notice. This means you should not assume that just because there is no copyright symbol or copyright notice that a work is not protected by copyright. Authors and creators also have the option to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office, and by doing so, certain legal advantages are given to them. Learn more about Registering for Copyright.
There are some items that are not protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Law also identifies examples of items not protected by copyright including works that have not been fixed in a tangible form, facts, or ideas. Additional examples of items not protected by copyright can be found in the Copyright FAQs.
The information presented in this guide is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered as legal advice or counsel. Faculty, staff, students, and others associated with the college should consult an attorney for advice concerning their individual copyright situations and needs.