Overview and FAQ

Copyright is all about balancing the rights of authors with the rights of the public to use the work without seeking permission or paying royalties.

Under copyright, authors have the right to control the use of their work subject to exceptions permitted under the law. If the use exceeds such exceptions, then infringing on someone's copyright can result in the infringer paying money damages (civil liability) and/or going to prison (criminal liability). To understand your rights and responsibilities under the copyright law, review the basics and the exceptions.

The Basics

What is copyright?
  • Copyright is a federal law. It is Title 17 of the United States Code.
  • Copyright is the right of authors to control the use of their work for a limited period of time.
  • A copyrighted work must be an original work of authorship which is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
Where did copyright law originate?

Copyright law originated with the United States Constitution. In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution states that "Congress shall have the power . . . to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries".

  • The U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress is responsible for overseeing the administrative functions of the copyright law.
  • Congress enacts copyright laws.
  • The Federal courts interpret and enforce the copyright law.
Why is copyright law important?
Copyright law provides exclusive rights to authors in order to protect their work but these rights are for a limited period of time. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to incentivize authors to create new works which would promote learning but also balance the authors rights with the rights of the public to use the works freely under certain conditions.
When does a work become copyrighted?
Under the U.S. Copyright Act, a work is protected if it is original and when it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. After March 1, 1989 works no longer require a copyright notice (© or the word copyright, the author's name and the year of publication). However, it is wise to affix a copyright notice to works so that the owner of the copyright can be easily identified. Copyright registration is also no longer required although the copyright owner has the option to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
What can be copyrighted?

The following categories of works are copyrightable:

  • Literary, musical and dramatic works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Sound recordings
  • Computer programs
  • Architectural works
What cannot be copyrighted?

The following categories of works are copyrightable:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes are not copyrightable (e.g., the list of ingredients for recipes are not copyrightable, but the recipes' instructions are protected).
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans are not copyrightable (e.g., Nike's slogan "Just do it" is not copyrightable, but a slogan can receive trademark protection).
  • Facts, news, and research are not copyrightable (e.g., a standard calendar).
  • Works in the public domain are not copyrightable. As of 2022, this includes works published in the United States prior to 1927. The public domain also comprises works created by United States government employees that are a result of what they were hired to do.
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., extemporaneous speeches that are not written or recorded).
What are the copyright holder's exclusive rights?

The owner of a copyright has six exclusive rights:

  • To reproduce the work.
  • To distribute the work.
  • To create derivative works.
  • To publicly perform the work.
  • To publicly display the work.
  • To publicly perform sound recordings by means of a digital audio transmission.
How long does copyright last?

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. If it is a corporate author then the protection is for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time.

For example, author James Michener died in 1997. His works, such as Alaska, Texas, and The Eagle and The Raven, which were all created after 1978, are protected under the copyright law until 2067.

For more information regarding the length of a copyright, please see the copyright duration chart.

What is the public domain?

The public domain consists of all works that never had copyright protection and works that no longer have copyright protection. As of 2022, this includes works published in the United States prior to 1927.

The public domain also includes most works created by the United States government. For example, census reports, which are compiled and published by the United States government are in the public domain.

All works in the public domain are free for the public to use.

Definitions

The U.S. Copyright Act provides definitions of many terms used in the law. The following are some examples of the definitions

creation
A work is created when is it fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time; where a work is prepared over a period of time, the portion that has been fixed at any particular time constitutes the work as of that time, and where the work has been prepared in different versions, each version constitutes a separate work.
derivitive works
A derivative work is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consists of editorial revision, annotation, elaboration, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a derivative work.
display

To display a work means to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images nonsequentially.

To perform or display a work publicly means:

  • to perform or display it in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or
  • to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public are capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.
fixed
A work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.
perform

To perform a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process, or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.

To perform or display a work publicly means:

  • to perform or display it in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or
  • to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public are capable of receiving the performance or display it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.
publication
Publication is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.