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Copyright, Fair Use, and the Public Domain

Copyright Basics

Copyright is a set of rights provided by the U.S. Constitution "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective writing and Discoveries" (Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution). 

Copyright is a type of intellectual property protection given by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) that protects "original works of authorship" as soon as an author "fixes the work in a tangible form of expression." This means as soon as a creator produces their work copyright is automatically applied. Original works of authorship encompasses a lot of different types of works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and more! 

Copyright takes effect immediately and does not require registration. Under the United States law, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator, or in the case of works for hire and anonymous/pseudonymous works, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Copyright provides the creator the following exclusive rights:

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in part (i.e., to make copies)
  • distribute copies of the work
  • publicly perform the work
  • publicly display the work
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptation (i.e., creating an adaptation, like making a movie from a book or translating a book from French to English)

Copyright can be transferred in part or all to another person or entity (like a publisher) with written consent. 

Some exceptions do apply, like fair use. If a person uses copyrighted material, where exceptions do not apply and without permission from the author, the user could be held liable for copyright infringement.

What works does copyright protect?

  • Literary works

  • Musical works, including accompanying words

  • Dramatic works, including accompanying music

  • Pantomimes and choreographic works

  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works

  • Sound recordings

  • Architectural works

Adapted from U.S. Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics

What is NOT protected by copyright?

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration

  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents

  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as an improvised performance that is not recorded)

  • Works produced by the U.S. Government 

  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship

  • Works in the public domain

Adapted from U.S. Copyright Office Circular 33, Works Not Protected by Copyright.