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Copyright Reference Guide For Educators

What is Copyright?

Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, 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." Established to promote creativity and innovation, this provision establishes the basis for patent law and copyright law in the United States. Congress has since enacted and amended legislation to grant the owner  (author, artist, composer, photographer, etc.) of original works certain specified exclusive rights to their works for a limited period of time. Copyright owners have exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part

  • Distribute the work publicly by sale, loan, or gift

  • Prepare derivative works based on the protected works

  • Perform and/or display the work publicly 

The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress oversees the administrative functions of the copyright law. Congress enacts copyright laws. The Federal courts interpret and enforce the copyright law.

Questions and Answers About Copyright

All original works become copyrighted and are thereby legally protected the moment they become fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright protection is available for both published and unpublished works. The U.S. Copyright Law does not currently require the use of a copyright notice (© or the word copyright, the author ́s name and the year of publication), although placing it on a work does confer certain benefits to the copyright holder.

Copyright protects works of authorship that are:     

  • Original - there must be some degree of creativity in the making of the work, not a copy of another person’s work     
  • Fixed - work must be written down or recorded on a physical or digital medium     
  • Owned – typically, the work is owned by the individual who created it, their employer under certain conditions or another who acquires the rights 
  • Categories of works that can be copyright-protected:     
  • 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     
  • Architectural works     
  • Computer programs/software     
  • Compilations of works and derivative works

Copyright does not protect everything. Categories of works that are not eligible for copyright protection, regardless of when they were created and whether or not they bear a copyright notice:      

  • Ideas – copyright protects original works of authorship, not ideas     
  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression by being written, recorded, or captured electronically     
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents (these may be protected under trademark law)     
  • Facts, data, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices (except for facts, certain of these may be protected by patent or trade secret law)     
  • “Orphan works” that cannot be traced to original authorship     
  • Works created by the U.S. Government.     
  • Constitutions and laws of state governments      
  • Works for which copyright protection has expired; works in the public domain.

Digital and electronic content enjoy the same protection under the U.S. Copyright Law as non-digital, traditional, and analog works. Both electronic and non-electronic databases (such as professional directories and collections of images) may be copyright-protected if they reflect some level of creativity by the author in the selection or organization of the data and the conditions for copyright protection are otherwise met. Moreover, any non-digital content that is protected by copyright law is protected in its digital form as well.

Copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer or other "works for hire" in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time. Works no longer protected by the copyright law automatically pass into the public domain. For more information, see the Copyright Status Chart by the Cornell Copyright Information Center.

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