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Understanding Copyright

Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection automatically provided to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works.

U.S. copyright law generally gives the author/creator or owner of an original creative work an exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (copy) or distribute the original work to the public (e.g., create and sell copies of a film)
  • Create new works based upon the original work (e.g., make a movie based on a book)
  • Perform or display the work publicly (e.g., perform a play)

Violation of one of these rights is called copyright infringement. However, the use may be authorized by copyright limitations (such as fair use).

What types of works are protected by copyright?

  • Literary works
  • Music and lyrics
  • Dramatic works and music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Photographs, graphics, paintings and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Video games and computer software
  • Audio recordings
  • Architectural works

What is not protected by copyright?

  • Unfixed works that have not been recorded in a tangible, fixed form (e.g., a song you made up and sang in the shower)
  • Work in the public domain (see below)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs
  • Ideas, facts, and numbers
  • Processes and systems (e.g., the Dewey decimal system)
  • Federal government works (e.g., the tax code)

Who owns the copyright?

  • Author/Creator
  • Author/Creator’s heirs if the creator is dead (living family)
  • Creators of a joint work automatically share copyright ownership unless there is a contrary agreement. (e.g., If two students write an original story together, they share the copyright.)
  • Anyone to whom the author/creator has given or assigned his or her copyright (e.g., an employer if the copyrighted work is created under a "work made for hire" agreement, a publisher or record company if the copyrighted work is given in exchange for a publishing or recording contract). Usually this means that the author/creator has given up his or her own copyright in the work.

How long does copyright last?

  • For original works created after 1977, copyright lasts for the life of author/creator + 70 years from the author’s death for his/her heirs.
  • For “works made for hire” corporate works and anonymous works created after 1977, copyright can last from 95-120 years from publication.

For more information see Circular 1: Copyright Basics published by the U.S. Copyright Office.