Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C. § 102a. To be “original” the work needs to only reflect a minimal degree of creativity and not have been copied. A work is “fixed” when its embodiment is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than a transitory duration. In other words, the work is no longer just an idea in the creator’s head but has been expressed in some permanent form.
Copyright vests automatically. Copyright just happens. Upon fixation, the copyright vests with the creator of the work automatically, and the creator becomes a copyright owner. This means that teaching, learning, scholarship, research and even anything from a novel to a napkin doodle has full and automatic copyright protection.
Works Made for Hire. There is a significant exception to the “copyright vests with the creator” principle. When a work is a “work made for hire”, the copyright automatically vests with someone other than the creator. There are two (2) types of “works made for hire”: 1) works authored by employees within the scope of their employment, and 2) “works made for hire” by contract. Within higher education, colleges and universities generally transfer the copyright for scholarly works to the employee-creators through specific contracts pursuant to institutional policies.
Copyright rights. Once copyright exists for a work, the copyright owner has five (5) exclusive rights, which no one may exercise without the owner’s permission:
the right to reproduce (i.e., make copies) the work in whole or in part;
the right to distribute copies of the work (by selling, renting, lending, or giving it away);
the right to perform the work (plays, movies, music, or books read out loud) in a public place or other place where a substantial number of persons other than family members and friends are gathered;
the right to display the work (paintings, sculptures, photographs, or individual frames of a movie) in a public place or other place where a substantial number of persons other than family members and friends are gathered;
the right to make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations.
It is important to also note that:
Copyright lasts a long time. Under the current law, copyrighted works are protected from the moment of the work’s creation until seventy (70) years after the creator’s death. 17 U.S.C. § 302. If a work was “made for hire [pdf]” or it is an anonymous or pseudonymous work, it is protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the creation of the work (whichever expires first).
Copyright does not last forever. Works with expired copyright pass into the public domain and are available to be used freely by anyone, in any way, and for any purpose. Works that were first published (not just created) before (not in or after) 1926 are now in the public domain under U.S. law.
For a quick overview on copyright, please watch the video, “Copyright Law: A Brief Introduction” by Jenna Stebbins, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Copyright applies to the following kinds of works:
Literary works, including textbooks, articles, software programs and their accompanying documentation, digital content, research papers, interviews, and many other materials;
Musical works, including accompanying words;
Dramatic works including accompanying music;
Pantomimes, choreographic works, and live concerts;
Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
Architectural works, including not only plans and drawings, which can also be considered pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, but also buildings themselves.
For additional details on these categories and the items included, refer to the U.S. Copyright Office (Learn More – Works Commonly Registered in this Category).
While it is important to understand what IS protected by copyright, there are many things that are NOT protected by copyright. They include:
Facts, ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in a work;
titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents;
other unoriginal or unfixed works;
U.S. Government documents with exceptions.
For a detailed review of works not protected by copyright, please see Circular 33 from the Copyright.gov website.