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Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

According to U.S. Copyright Law, copyright protects works of "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression." This includes broad categories of (1) literary works, (2) musical works (including any accompany words), (3) dramatic works (including any accompanying music), (4) pantomimes and choreographic works, (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, (6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works, (7) sound recordings, and (8) architectural works. 

Copyright gives the author the following exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the work
  • prepare derivative works
  • distribute the work
  • publicly perform the work
  • publicly display the work

What Works are Protected?

Examples of copyrightable works include:

  • 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, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds
  • Architectural works

What Works are Not Protected?

Copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents

How Long Does Copyright Last?

According to the U.S. Copyright office website, "the term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors."

To learn more about copyright terms, visit Cornell University's Copyright Term and Public Domain Chart.

Disclaimer: The information presented in this guide is intended for information purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.