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Copyright Basics

This guide offers basic copyright information for users of copyrighted materials.

What is Copyright?

copyright symbol Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author/creator fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. This applies to written works (books, articles, blogs), visual works (images, photographs, paintings), musical compositions (lyrics, scores), audiovisual works (movies, sound recordings, video games), computer programs, unpublished works, and more.

As long as the work is “original,” as in created by a human and showing at least minimal creativity, and it is “fixed” (written down, recorded, painted, etc) in a “sufficiently permanent medium,” it is protected by copyright. [U.S. Copyright Office, What is Copyright?]

The constitutional purpose of copyright is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts [Title 17, U. S. Code].  Copyright gives authors and creators the power to allow or prohibit certain uses of their works. Think of yourself as both a creator and a user.

Watch this 5-minute video from the U.S. Copyright Office (Learning Engine Series) created in 2019.

What things are not protected by copyright?

  • Ideas, facts, or theories -- however, the expression of ideas and facts can be protected by copyright
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Works in the public domain (see below)

What are the rights of a copyright owner?

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (copy) the work -- make copies in any medium
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work -- translations, adaptations (books, articles)
  • Distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform or display the work publicly -- generally for creative works
  • Authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations If you want to use a copyrighted work in one of these ways, you will need the permission of the author, unless your use falls under one of the exceptions to copyright law listed below. Infringing upon the rights of the author may be subject to legal action.
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