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Introduction to Copyright

The Copyright Law of the United States gives creators of original works of authorship a set of exclusive rights to copy, distribute, and perform their works. There are some important exceptions to the creator's exclusive rights which are important to the advancement of education, research, and scholarship. The law is intended, in the words of the Constitution:

"...to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8)

This page contains information about the following important provisions of U.S. copyright law:

Exclusive Rights of Copyright Owners

Section 106 gives copyright owners the right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or sound recordings of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

In addition, certain authors of works of visual art have the rights of attribution and integrity (§ 106A).

Types of Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright protects "original works of authorship" that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device. Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most "compilations" may be registered as "literary works"; maps and architectural plans may be registered as "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works." See Copyright Basics from the U.S. Copyright Office for further information.

Works Not Protected by Copyright

The following works are not subject to copyright protection in the United States:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries;
  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form (e.g., choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded);
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans;
  • Familiar symbols or designs;
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring;
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents;
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is commonly known and containing no original authorship (e.g., standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, etc.); and
  • Works created by the federal government.

Exceptions and Limitations

A copyright owner's exclusive rights are limited by the following important exceptions:

  • Section 107 Fair Use – Fair use allows for the limited use of copyrighted works, without permission or payment, for purposes such as teaching, scholarship, research, criticism, and commentary. Fair use decisions are made on a case-by-case basis by weighing and balancing the four fair use factors set out below. Read more about fair use.
      1. the purpose and character of the use
      2. the nature of the copyrighted work
      3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
      4. the effect of the use upon the market for or value of the copyrighted work
  • Section 108 Library Exception – Section 108 contains provisions allowing libraries to make copies of materials for patrons or for preservations, under certain circumstances.
  • Section 109 Right of First Sale – Section 109 allows the owner of a lawfully made copy of a copyrighted work to be sell, lend, donate, or otherwise dispose of that copy. This provision enables libraries to lend copyrighted materials in their collections to their users.

Some creators want to share their works beyond the exceptions set out by law. To facilitate and standardize this process, the Creative Commons licensing system was developed to allow creators to proactively determine what additional rights they wish to grant to users.

Protecting Your Own Work

An original work is protected by copyright law from the moment it is fixed in any tangible medium of expression, such as saved as a digital file or written on a piece of paper. Original works do not have to be published to be protected by copyright, and a copyright notice has not required for protection since March 1, 1989. While no longer required, copyright notices are still used to remind users that the work is protected by copyright and to provide the name of the copyright owner. Registering your copyright with the Copyright Office is not required for your work to be protected by copyright, but it is required if you ever need to enforce your rights through litigation.

Length of Copyright Term and the Public Domain

Copyright protection expires after a length of time legislated by Congress. Determining when copyright expires depends on a number of factors, as set out in this Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart from Cornell University. When the copyright in a work expires, that work enters the public domain, which means that the work can be used freely by anyone without any copyright restrictions.

Penalties for Copyright Infringement

Penalties for copyright infringement are potentially very severe. The penalty for each act of infringement is either (i) the actual dollar amount of damages and profits or (ii) statutory damages of $750 to $30,000. Depending on the circumstances of the infringement, the court, in its discretion, could decrease that amount to as low as $200 or as high as $150,000 per act of infringement. (§ 504) Attorneys fees, which can be substantial for copyright litigation, may also be awarded to the winning party. (§ 505)

In cases of willful infringement resulting in commercial profit or private financial gain, criminal charges may also be brought. (§ 506)

Additional Resources