Copyright can be a tricky concept. But it's deeply intertwined with writing, research, and every time you communicate online. This guide will help make copyright a little clearer.
On this page, we will answer the following questions:
You can also find the answers to these questions in the Crash Course video below.
The rest of the guide will go into more detail related to specific copyright topics:
Copyright: "a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression [emphases in original] (U.S. Copyright Office, "What is Copyright?").
Intellectual property: "any product of the human intellect that the law protects from unauthorized use by others. The ownership of intellectual property inherently creates a limited monopoly in the protected property (Legal Information Institute, "Intellectual Property")."
The United States Constitution grants Congress 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" (Art. 1, Sec. 8). This clause, though it does not use the word "copyright," is the basis of copyright law in the United States. Its logic is that giving authors temporary monopolies on the use of their works will promote their creativity by giving them an incentive to create the works. It gives Congress broad powers to determine how to best set these incentives (Congressional Research Service).
There are two requirements for something to qualify for copyright protection:
To be an original work of authorship, something must be created by a human using some minimal level of creativity and without directly copying another work (U.S. Copyright Office, "What is Copyright?").
Fixing in a tangible form of expression means that the work is captured in a physical form so that it can be perceived and used to communicate to others for an extended period of time. This includes physical forms where you would need a device to perceive and interact with the work (Crews Ch. 4 [UofM login required]).
These are broad categories of works that can be copyrighted:
These categories are designed to be interpreted broadly. Anything that is a work of original authorship fixed in a tangible form of expression can be copyrighted (U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1 1 [PDF]).
Copyright holders are granted the following exclusive rights:
So copyright holders are allowed to make copies of the work, distribute and sell it, display it, perform it, and make derivatives from it. Most of these are fairly straightforward except making derivative works.
A derivative work is a new work of authorship that is created ("derived") from an existing copyrighted work. Common examples of derivative works include translations, adaptations (such as a TV version of a book), and updated or revised editions. A derivative work may also be copyrightable if it adds new original work (U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 14 1 [PDF]).
Copyright owners also have the power to grant others the ability to make use of these rights (U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1 2 [PDF]). This is done through a license (Legal Information Institute, "License").
The length of copyright protection will vary depending on how it was authored:
Once these time periods have expired, the work enters the public domain.
These lengths apply to anything published on or after January 1, 1978. The lengths of copyright protection have varied over time. To figure out the length of copyright for something published before January 1, 1978, start with the U.S. Copyright Office's Circular 15A: Duration of Copyright [PDF].
Copyright lengths have grown significantly over the years. Many critics believe that the current lengths of copyright subvert the original purpose of incentivizing creativity. This video, Copyright: Forever Less One Day, is a good introduction to those criticisms.
The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.
Crews., Kenneth D. Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators : Creative Strategies and Practical Solutions. Fourth edition, ALA Editions, 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=2434646&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Legal Information Institute. “Intellectual Property.” Wex, Cornell Law School, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/intellectual_property.
---. "License." Wex, Cornell Law School, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/license.
United States Congressional Research Service. "ArtI.S8.C8.1.1 Origins and Scope of the Power." The Constitution Annotated. constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/artI-S8-C8-1-1/ALDE_00000124.
United States Copyright Office. Circular 1: Copyright Basics. www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf.
---. Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations. www.copyright.gov/circs/circ14.pdf.
---. Circular 33: Works Not Protected by Copyright. www.copyright.gov/circs/circ33.pdf.
--- “What Is Copyright?” Copyright.gov, www.copyright.gov/what-is-copyright.