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Guide to General Copyright Information and Resources

What is copyright?

Copyright law (title 17 of the U.S. Code) provides protection to the creators of works that are:

  • Original
  • Creative
  • "Fixed in any tangible medium of expression", meaning the work must be recorded in someway.

Copyright applies when the original work is created whether or not they are published or unpublished. Copyright law places these copyrightable works into broad categories:

  • 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
  • Architectural works

Copyright ownership and protection is available for an author/creator if three requirements are met:

Some works are not subject to copyright (though they may be eligible for other protections, such as patents or trademarks). These include:

  • Facts (e.g. a standard calendar or ruler)
  • Ideas, methods, procedures, concepts, principles, discoveries (e.g. the "concept" of a romance novel or the process for cold fusion)
  • Works in the public domain (e.g. works in the U.S. created before 1923 or works created by the federal government)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans (e.g. Google or Apple's "Think Different" slogan)
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g. spontaneous speech or performance that is not written or recorded)

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to do and authorize the following:

  • To reproduce the work;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To prohibit other persons from using the work without permission;
  • To perform the work publicly.

Copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years for works created on or after January 1, 1978.

To use copyrighted material, you may need to get permission from the copyright holder.

  1. Determine if the material is protected by copyright: has the copyright expired, and/or is it in the public domain? Are you using the author's original work or are you using an idea or fact?
  2. Determine if your use qualifies for an exemption under fair use or the TEACH Act.