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Copyright at The College of St. Scholastica

Learn about copyright

What is Copyright?

Decorative image of the Federal BuildingCopyright is a federal law enacted by Congress that provides exclusive rights and protections for creators and authors of "original works".  The authority of this law comes from the US 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."

Copyright is also a limited, statutory monopoly giving exclusive rights to the creator or author. This means that the law provides authors and creators with certain rights and protections for their work. It also means these protections are in place for a specific time period. Copyright law does not last forever. 

These rights are granted to authors as soon as a work is put into some tangible form or medium, which means some physical or electronic form. These rights are given for published and unpublished works. This means that copyright protects most works that we create in education. It also extends to the work that students create for classes. 

One important thing to remember about copyright is that it does not protect ideas. It only protects the expression of the ideas. 

Resources to learn more:


What is the purpose of copyright?

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.


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What are the exclusive rights of copyright holders?

The copyright law provides an exclusive bundle of rights to the copyright holder.  These rights include:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies.
  • The right to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.
  • The right to distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work in public and digitally (i.e., movies, plays, music, dramatic works, pantomimes, etc.).
  • The right to display the copyrighted work in public (i.e., images, dramatic works, sculptures, photographs, graphics, music, audiovisual works, motion pictures, pantomimes, etc.)
  • In the case of sound recordings, the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. 

These rights are guaranteed to the creator or author as soon as an item is created and as long as the work is original and creative in nature. In addition, most works created after March 1, 1989, no longer need to include the copyright symbol or copyright notice on the work. This is now optional. Furthermore, the copyright holder is no longer required to register their copyright to be protected.  This means that you should assume that all works you encounter and want to use are probably copyrighted. 

Although a copyright holder does not need to include a copyright symbol, copyright notice, or register their copyright with the US Copyright Office, there are some added benefits for doing so. A copyright notice or symbol alerts the world that the item is copyrighted and provides information for interested users to locate the copyright holder to request permission. Additionally, registering a copyrighted work with the US Copyright Office allows for added benefits if an infringement case arises.  Those wishing to register their copyright can expect to fill out a form with the US Copyright Office, pay a nominal fee, and will be required to include a copy of the work upon registration. 


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How long does copyright last?

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.  

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. 


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What is protected by copyright?

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. This includes anything original or creative in nature, written or typed, stored in a computer, recorded in an audio or video format, created in digital format, or created in other types of mediums.

Congress identified 8 basic categories of works that are protected by copyright in the copyright law. These basic categories are as follows:

  1. Literary works;
  2. Musical works, including accompanying words;
  3. Dramatic works, including accompanying music;
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. Pictorial, graphical, and sculpture works;
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. Sound recordings;
  8. Architectural works

Specific examples of items protected by copyright and often found and used in education, research, and scholarship include:

  • Journals, magazines, and newspaper articles
  • Books and individual book chapters                 Architectural drawing
  • Lecture notes
  • Photographs, graphics, and other Images
  • Websites and individual web pages
  • Movies 
  • Video games
  • Plays, scripts, and poetry
  • Paintings, drawings, ceramics, and sculptures
  • Architectural drawings and other technical drawings
  • Sheet music and lyrics
  • CD's, LP's and other recorded music
  • Recorded sport performances
  • And much more...

Basically, this means that just about anything you see, hear, or touch may be protected by copyright. However, it is important to remember that the creation must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," which means that the item must exist in some type of physical form even if it is only for a brief time. In addition, the work must be original in nature and created by the author. It doesn't matter how similar it is to another work or how well it is created. As long as the work is not copying another work or is an exact replica, it is protected by copyright. Finally, the work must be creative in nature. There is no set rule about creativity as long as it more than a listing of facts. For example, an alphabetical list of names would not be protected by copyright; however, grouping these names under specific headings or by unique qualities or categories would be protected by copyright. 

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.


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(Adapted from Stanford University, Copyright FAQs: under a CC BY-NC 3.0 license)


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What is not protected by copyright?

A student sitting in front of her laptop with her head in her hands with multiple ideas floating above her and around her.


Just as Congress provided insight into what can be copyrighted, they also were clear that not everything can be or should be available for copyright. The US Copyright Law identifies the following categories that are not protected by copyright:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form (e.g., improvisational speeches or performances that have not been recorded or notated, improvisational choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, discussions or interviews that have not been recorded, etc.);
  • Facts or ideas;
  • Systems, methods of operations, procedures, or processes (however, they may be protected by other intellectual property laws, like patent or trademark);
  • Concepts, discoveries, or principles;
  • Names, domain names, titles, numbers, or letters
  • Slogans or short phrases, or logos (however, they may be protected by other intellectual property laws, like trademark);
  • Sightings (e.g., Elvis, Big Foot - however, photos or other depictions of the sighting would be copyrightable. Also, they may be protected by other laws, like privacy). 
  • Useful items (e.g., furniture, clothing, tools, etc. - however, they may be protected by other intellectual property laws like patents or trademarks. In addition, in the case of a chair, the actual chair itself may not be copyrighted, but the fabric covering the chair may be protected by copyright. Or if the chair had a carving on it, the carving could be protected by copyright. Additionally, a shirt by itself may not be copyrighted, but the design on the shirt may be protected by copyright.)


Resources to learn more:


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Additional Resources

Title: What is Copyright? 
Created by: The U.S. Copyright Office
License: Standard YouTube
Duration: 5:38 mins.

A short video discussing the basics of copyright.  


Title: Hey That's My Idea!
Created by: The U.S. Copyright Office
License: Standard YouTube
Duration: 3:09 mins.

A short video discussing what copyright protection covers and does not cover.

Want to learn more about the basics of copyright? 

Title: Mickey Mouse and Copyright Law
Created by: Tech Insider
Published by: Tech Insider
License: Standard YouTube License
Length: 2:59 mins.

A short YouTube video looking at the history of copyright and how the copyright duration has changed because of Mickey Mouse.