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Last Updated: Jul 9, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a collection of rights granted authors and creators for a limited time. The U.S. Constitution granted Congress “the Power …to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly or to display the copyrighted work publicly. In the case of sound recordings, the copyright owner has the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. These exclusive rights are freely transferable and may be licensed, sold, donated to charity or bequeathed to the copyright owner's heirs. It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. 

A "work" cannot be just an idea to qualify for copyright protection. It must "fixed" to give it some permancy, either in print, graphically, or as a recording. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or fixation. In most jurisdictions copyright arises upon fixation.

The exclusive rights of the copyright owner are balanced for public interest purposes with limitations and exceptions.  Copyright owners have the exclusive statutory right to exercise control over copying and other exploitation of their works for a specific period of time.  However, during the publication process, copyright owners often license or permanently transfer or assign their exclusive rights to others. Once the copyright expires the work enters the public domain. Uses of a work which fall under the limitations and exceptions to copyright, such as fair use, do not require permission from the copyright owner. All other uses require permission.


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