What is copyright?

Copyright stems from the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 and empowers the United States Congress -- "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." Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors, photographers, composers, and other creators to control some reproduction and distribution of their work.

There are several different rights that come along with copyright. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part;
  • Prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements;
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan;
  • Publicly perform the work;
  • Publicly display the work.

These rights have exceptions and limitations, including the "fair use" provisions, which allows certain uses without permission of the copyright holder.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literature, music, painting, photography, dance, and other forms of creative expression. In order to be protected by copyright, a work must be:

  • Original: A work must be created independently and not copied.
  • Creative: There must be some minimal degree of creativity involved in making the work.
  • A work of authorship: This includes literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works.
  • Fixed: The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape.

What isn't protected by copyright?

There are many things that are not protected by copyright, including:

  • Facts and ideas;
  • Processes, methods, systems, and procedures;
  • Titles;
  • All works prepared by the United States Government;
  • Constitutions and laws of State governments;
  • Materials published in the United States prior to 1923 have passed into the public domain. Use the public domain chart at Cornell for specific details.
  • Some works published between 1923 and 1963 may also be in the public domain, but this can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. The Stanford Copyright Renewal Database can provide assistance with some of these "orphan" works.
  • Another useful tool for learning more about public domain works is the Public Domain Sherpa.

How do works acquire copyright?

Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is copyrighted. Formal procedures such as copyright notice, registration, or publication are not required to obtain copyright.

This means that almost everything is copyrighted. This includes not just published material, such as books and articles, but also your emails and letters, your assignments, your drafts, and your snapshots.

You do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, it's a very good idea to include a copyright notice, along with your contact information, so that people who want to re-use your work will be able to get in touch with you. A good copyright notice might look something like:

" 2008 J. Doe. For permissions and questions contact j.doe@jdoe.com."

Is copyright forever?

Copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer or other "works for hire" in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

Who owns a copyrighted work?

The creator is usually the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. Note that this may differ from common academic conduct and expectations, where the lead author may be considered more important than the others.

If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work made for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. By tradition, faculty writings are not treated as "work made for hire"; visit the Baylor University Intellectual Property Policy for more information.

In the case of work by independent contractors or freelancers, the copyright belongs to the contractor or freelancer unless otherwise negotiated beforehand, and agreed to in writing.

It is possible to transfer a copyright; this frequently happens as a part of publishing agreements. In many cases, the publisher holds the copyright to a work, and not the author. A valid copyright transfer requires a signed written agreement.

How do I register my copyright?

You do not have to register your work to receive and retain copyright protection, but if you plan to publish, post, or otherwise distribute your work, it may be a good idea to do so since registration confers a number of legal benefits. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright. Registering is not difficult, and the fee is $45.00: for instructions and forms, visit the United States Copyright Office website.


Some of this content was created by the University of Michigan Library and was released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 License. The Regents of the University of Michigan, 2007.