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Copyright Basics

The Rights Copyright Gives

A copyright owner has the rights to, or may authorize others to, the following things: 17 U.S.C. § 106

  • Make copies of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work (by selling, renting, lending, or giving it away)
  • Perform or display the work publicly
  • Make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations
  • Authorize others to do these things

A copyright owner can give away some or all of those rights to other people or entities, by transferring ownership or granting licenses. Ownership or license rights can be shared by any number of people or entities.

What Copyright Protects

The copyright rights outlined above only apply to works that fit into one of these eight categories: 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)

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

Works that fit into one of the categories above must also be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression”—that is, saved in some form—in order to qualify for copyright protection. Almost anything counts as “fixed”—a drawing on a chalkboard or whiteboard, or a file saved in a computer’s memory would qualify. However, unfixed works such as improvisational speeches or music aren’t protected by copyright.

A work also must include original creative expression to qualify for protection. The amount of originality required is relatively low, but just “sweat of the brow” is not enough. For example, writing out an alphabetical list of all Nobel Prize winners may take work, but it doesn’t really contain any original expression. By contrast, if you add annotations and commentary to that list, you could own a copyright in the annotations and commentary.

What Copyright Doesn't Protect

Copyright does not apply to: 17 U.S.C. § 102(b)

  • Procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation. These may qualify for protection and ownership under patent law, and patent and copyright do not usually overlap.
  • Ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries. Broadly speaking, these are not ownable under any form of U.S. intellectual property law. 
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents (32 CFR § 202.1) These are considered to fail the requirement of originality.
  • Other unoriginal or unfixed works

More info on what copyright doesn’t do, from the U.S. Copyright Office:

How to Get a Copyright

Creators today don’t have to do anything to get a copyright; a work that qualifies is automatically fully protected by copyright from the moment it is first “fixed”. Publication is not a requirement for copyright protection, and even formal registration is purely optional. There is also no requirement to include a copyright notice, date, the “circled c” © symbol, or any other information on the work in order to own a copyright.

Copyrights can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office by any legal owner, at any time during the term of copyright protection. There is a nominal fee for registration, and a copy of the work must be deposited with the Copyright Office. (More info available in the Copyright Office FAQ)

How Long Copyrights Last

For works created today, copyright protection starts automatically as soon as a work is created, and lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator.

Because copyright terms have been changed several times, the term lengths for older works vary widely, based on a large number of factors. 

More Information About US Copyright Law

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The DMCA updated Title 17 of the US Code to address copyrighted works available in digital formats. This law strengthened the ability of copyright holders to control and restrict access to their work in digital formats, and expanded the ability of libraries to make copies of print resources available for interlibrary loan and for preservation purposes.

Adapted and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

This web site presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.

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