Copyright Basics for Everyone – an Overview

| February 25, 2015
Copyright graffiti - photo credit: Horia Varlan

Copyright graffiti – photo credit: Horia Varlan

Do you have anything that is copyrighted? Have you ever written a research paper, poem, piece of music, or short story? Taken a photograph or a sound or video recording? If you’ve done any of these things in your life, you hold copyright on your creations. In fact, you probably hold hundreds, if not thousands, of copyrights. Intellectual property laws, which govern copyright, patents, and trademarks, protect intellectual property from unauthorized use but also carve out a number of exceptions to allow certain people in certain circumstances to make use of protected materials. It is important for students, educators, and basically anyone else to have at least a basic grasp of some of the principles of copyright law in order to protect their own copyrighted materials and to avoid infringement (unauthorized use) of others’ copyrighted materials. In this post, I will provide an overview of copyright law in the US. Stay tuned for two subsequent posts in which I will discuss some issues pertaining to creators of intellectual property and issues pertaining to the use of others’ intellectual property, respectively.

The Origins of Copyright

The idea of copyright predates the United States, but the notion of copyright was apparently important enough to the founders that they included it in no less a document than the United States Constitution itself. Article I, Section 8 states:

“The Congress shall have 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.”

Copyright is essentially a limited-time monopoly over a creative work. The idea behind copyright is that granting exclusive rights to creators will allow those creators to profit form their work and therefore motivate them to be more productive.

The What, When, and How of Copyright

The “what” of copyright has two parts. First, what kinds of creations are protected under copyright law? In order for something to be eligible for copyright protection, it must meet these criteria: it must be fixed in a tangible medium, and it must be an original work of authorship (not copies, lists, or facts). Works that are eligible for copyright protection include:

  • literary works
  • musical works (melody and words that are written or recorded)
  • theatrical works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • films
  • audio recordings
  • architectural works

The second “what” is for what specific protections that copyrighted works receive. Copyright holders have the exclusive right to do the following with their copyrighted works:

  • reproduce the work
  • create derivatives based on the work
  • distribute copies of the work to others
  • perform or display the work in public
  • grant permission to others to do the aforementioned things

We will discuss in more detail the implications of these exclusive rights for those on either side of the producer/consumer coin in the next two posts.

The “when” and “how” aspects of copyright law should really be addressed together. Copyright begins at the moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium, and there really is no “how” because copyright is automatically granted when the work becomes fixed. Let me give you an example of what I mean by “fixed:” that idea you have for the Great American Novel is not copyrightable because it exists only in your head. It only gains the status of copyrighted work when you commit your ideas to paper (or, more likely, word processor). Similarly, that beautiful, touching speech you made at your brother’s wedding is not copyrightable unless it was either recorded or written down. After the work comes into existence, it is protected by copyright for the term of life of the author (or creator) plus 70 years. This goes for newly created works. Older works may have a different copyright term depending on what the law was at the time they were created. A great resource for determining the copyright status of an item is this handy Digital Copyright Slider. Works that are no longer protected by copyright are considered to be in the public domain. What’s the public domain? You’ll have to check back in again next week to find out!

Part two of this series: How to Use Intellectual Property without Breaking the Law and Offending People coming next week!

Further resources:

This blog series was inspired by the copyright workshop “What’s Fair, Copycat? The A,B,C’s of Copyright” put together by senior librarians Jennifer Govan and Allen Foresta. Slides of the presentation can be found in Pocket Knowledge (free account needed for access).

Copyright Basics from the United States Copyright Office