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The home page of Indiana University Libraries' guide to copyright law.

Copyright Basics

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a kind of property created by law.  The owner of a copyright has exclusive rights to control the copying and other uses of a copyrighted work.

What Is the Purpose of Copyright?

The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate intellectual property in order "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" (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8).  Copyright law seeks to balance the interests of the public and authors, who are rewarded by the law with protections to spur them to create works for the public to use. 

What Is Protected By Copyright?

Copyright protection is automatic for “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (U.S. Copyright Act §102). Once an original work by an author, composer, or other creator is fixed in a relatively stable form, such as a writing or recording, it is protected by copyright.

The law's definition contains three essential elements.  First, a work must be original.  The Supreme Court defined originality as a work "independently created by the author" and contains "some minimal degree of creativity."  The originality requirement means that facts, scientific principles, or methods of doing things can’t be copyrighted.  Second, it must be a work of "authorship."  That is, human creativity must have produced the work.  For example, photographs taken by animals who triggered the camera are not works of "authorship."  Third, the work must be fixed, i.e. it must be in a somewhat permanent form, such as being written down.  For example, a speech in itself is not copyrightable because it is not “fixed” because words spoken to an audience are not preserved.  But if the text of the speech were transcribed or an audio recording made, then the speech could be copyrighted.

American law recognizes the following types of copyrightable works:

  • 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 (from 1972)
  • architectural works (from 1990)

“Literary works” include not only “literary” things such as novels and poems, but non-fiction books, newspaper articles, and computer programs.  The law’s definition of a “literary work” includes things “expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia.”  “Musical works” include songs and other compositions—but not sound recordings, which the law places in a separate category.  “Dramatic works” include plays and other works for the stage.  “Pantomimes and choreographic works” are copyrightable to the extent that the work is documented in a recording or in some form of choreographic notation.  “Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works” include paintings, photographs, engravings, and drawings.  “Architectural works” refers to built structures—plans for them are classed as “pictorial” works.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus seventy years.  When the copyright for a work has expired, it is part of the “public domain,” meaning it can be used freely without payment or permission, because it is no longer owned by anyone.  Two guides to determine if a work has entered the public domain are Cornell's Copyright Term website and the Public Domain Slider of the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy.  Copyright terms in other countries have historically been based on the life of the creator plus a certain number of years, typically 50 or 70, depending on the nationality of the creator.  Wikipedia maintains a list of copyright durations for foreign nations.

What Are the Owner's Rights?
Library stacks

The Copyright Act gives the owner exclusive rights to copy, display, distribute or perform works, and to create derivative works.  Section 106 details these rights:

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

What Can I Do With Copyrighted Materials?

These exclusive rights listed in section 106 are limited by other provisions of the Copyright Act, which permit certain types of uses of copyrighted materials in education or research, or specific types of performances or transformative creative activity. Sections 107 through 122 of the Copyright Act provide a number of limitations on copyright owner’s rights that allow the use of copyrighted works without permission or payment. The best known of these exceptions is “fair use."  There are other limitations in the law.  One, section 110(1), gives teachers to right to use certain types of works in class.  Another, section 108, allows librarians to make copies for preservation.

Further Reading

Here are some introductory books on copyright law.