This guide provides information about copyright -- including the rights of both creators and users of copyrighted material. However, it may not cover all scenarios involving copyright and fair use. If your question isn't answered here, or you would like further consultation, please contact Paige Morgan, Digital Publishing and Copyright Librarian, for further information. You can email Paige, or make an appointment to meet virtually.
None of the information in this guide, or in discussions with the Digital Publishing and Copyright Librarian, constitutes legal advice.
Copyright is a collection of rights granted to authors and creators for a limited amount of time.
Copyright is a form of protection provided to the creators of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The Copyright Act (17 USC § 102) gives the creator or owner of copyright certain exclusive rights:
Many types of works are copyrightable -- including literary, musical, graphic, and architectural works. However, a "work" cannot be just an idea to qualify for copyright protection. It must "fixed" to give it some permanency. The specific wording in the law is "fixed in any tangible medium of expression" -- and this could mean that it is written or typed, photographed, recorded as audio or video, or created, if your idea is for a physical object. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or fixation. In most jurisdictions, copyright arises upon expression or fixation. This means that as soon as you have created your idea in a tangible form, you hold the copyright. You hold the copyright whether or not you choose to formally register it with the US Copyright Office (and more information on registering is available elsewhere in this guide).
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.