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Last Updated: Jun 8, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

Copyright Law Print Page

What is Copyright?

Copyright is the legal right to control the copying, distribution, display, or performance of creative works. It protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Ideas are not protected, but once an idea is captured in a tangible form – anything from writing or paint to software code – that work is protected. Copyright protection is automatic – it applies to emails or class essays, as well as published work like journal articles or web pages.

These rights, however, are not absolute. Congress and the courts have recognized that cultural progress requires the balancing principle of “fair use” – the limited and reasonable use of copyrighted works for a variety of purposes, including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. This limitation on copyright furthers social progress and eliminates the potential conflict between copyright and free speech that could arise if copyright holders held absolute control of their work.


Copyright Protections

Copyright holders have the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce, or make copies of, a work
  • Create derivative works – these include dramatizations, translations, recordings, and reproductions of artistic works
  • Distribute a work, or make it available to the public
  • Publicly perform a work
  • Publicly display a work

Copyright holders also have the right to assign these rights to others.


Copyright Limitations

Fair Use

Copyright law is limited in important ways, the most significant of which is the doctrine of fair use. Fair use balances the rights of copyright holders with society’s interest in the progress of knowledge and culture. It allows people to use and reproduce copyrighted work, without permission or payment, for purposes including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

 First Sale Doctrine

The right to distribute copyrighted works is limited by the first sale doctrine. A book publisher, for example, controls the right to make copies of a book, but once a copy is sold the owner of the copy may resell, rent, or loan that copy to others. (The first sale right itself has in recent decades been limited by restrictions on the resale of digital recordings and software. This limitation is being contested in court.)

 Public Domain

Copyright applies only for a limited term. After the term has expired, a work falls into the public domain and  can be used freely by anyone for any purpose.

Works created by the U.S. government and some state governments are not subject to copyright law, and are in the public domain from the time of their creation.

Authors often choose to make their work available for use by others, under a Creative Commons license, for example. This work is not in the public domain – it remains under copyright – but it is licensed by the creator for public use.


Copyright Law


The United States Constitution grants Congress the 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.”


Extent and Duration

Copyright law covers many forms of creative expression – novels, plays, music, photographs, drawings, paintings, sculpture, choreography, maps, movies, video games, architecture, and more. A work must be fixed in a tangible form to be protected, and it must include some amount of originality or creativity – copyright law does not protect facts. A copyrighted work must also include what the U.S. Copyright Office terms “sufficient authorship.” Names, titles, and slogans cannot be copyrighted, although they may be trademarked.


Copyright terms have become quite lengthy, and can be complicated.

The current copyright term is the length of the author’s life, plus 70 years. If a work has more than one author, the copyright extends until the last surviving author’s death, plus 70 years. This term applies whether or not the work has been published.

In some cases, the copyright term cannot be based on the length of a person’s life. When a work’s author is anonymous, the copyright term extends 95 years after publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. With many works, the employer of a creator or group of creators holds the copyright in a work. This is known as “work made for hire,” and copyright terms for these works are also the shorter of 95 years after publication or 120 years from creation.

The copyright term has expired on all work published before 1923. This work is in the public domain and may be used freely. If a work was created before 1923 but not published, it may still be under copyright.

Works created between 1923 and March 1, 1989, are subject to varying copyright terms. Cornell University has created a chart that can be consulted for specifics.


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