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Copyright Tutorial: Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is defined as the exclusive right of the creator to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute, perform, display, sell, lend or rent their creations.

Copyright law is based on the Constitution

"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"

U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8

Copyright is a federal law (17 U.S.C. 101 et. seq.). It allows authors to control the use of their works for a limited period of time. Once that time period has expired, the public is allowed to freely use the works without paying royalties or obtaning permission from the copyright holder.

The last major revision to the copyright law of the United States was the Copyright Act of 1976.  It set forth the law that, with some small provisions, is still in effect today. The passage of the TEACH Act in 2002 updated Section 110 for distance education technology.

What is covered?

Please note: the items in 'not covered' may be covered by other types of law such as licensing, patent, trademark, etc.

Covered: Original works of authorship
in a fixed medium of expression...
  • Poetry
  • Prose
  • Computer programs
  • Artwork
  • Music-written or recorded
  • Animations
  • Movies and videos
  • Web pages
  • Television broadcasts
  • Choreography
  • Architectural drawings
  • Photographs
  • and more
Not covered:
  • Ideas
  • Titles
  • Names
  • Short phrases
  • Works in the public domain
  • Factual information
  • Logos and slogans (Trademark law)
  • Blank forms that only collect information
  • URL's
  • License
  • Patents
  • Systems
  • Procedures
  • Measuring devices
  • Works of the U.S. government

What is protected and for how long?

How can you tell  if something is copyrighted?

The work must be an original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. All works in a fixed medium, whether published or unpublished, are copyright protected.  This includes:

  • Literary, musical and dramatic works
  • Pantominmes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Sound recordings
  • Motion pictures and other AV works
  • Computer programs
  • Compilations of works and other derivative works
  • Architectural works

The copyright symbol is not necessary for a work to be copyrighted--it is automatic.  Works do, however, need to be registered with the Copyright Office before legal action can be taken.

Works that are not copyrighted include:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems and processes (these can, however, be protected by patent law)
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans (again, patent or trademark law)
  • Facts, news and research
  • Works produced by United States goverment employees and some state agencies
  • Works in the public domain
  • Works in which no copyright is claimed

How long is a work protected?

Works published before 1924
  • public domain
Works published between 1924 & 1963
  • first term of 28 years (with notice)
  • renewal term of 67 years (affirmative renewal required)
Works published between 1964 & 1977
  • first term of 28 years (with notice)
  • renewal term of 67 years (automatic)
Works published after 1977
  • unitary term of life plus 70 years
  • registration not required for protection
  • notice not required

A more detailed chart is available from Cornell.

Rights of the copyright holder

The Copyright Act grants 5 rights to the copyright holder:

1] Reproduction of the work (copies or phonorecords)

2] Adaptation or creation of derivative works

3] Distribution of copies or phonorecords by sale, gift, rental lease or lending

4] Public performance of the work (for literary, musical, dramatic works and dance, plus motion pictures and other audiovisual works)

5] Public display of the work (for literary, musical, dramatic, pantomime, and dance works, plus pictorial, graphic, sculptural works and individual images from motion pictures and other audio visual material)


Perform - To "Perform" a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process, or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.

Display - To "Display" a work means to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images nonsequentially.

Subject Guide

Lori Bryan's picture
Lori Bryan

Penalties and liability

Penalties for copyright infringement may be actual or statutory. For schools, damages would most likely be statutory, with fines ranging from $250 to $10,000 per work infringed upon. Legal fees and court cost may also be included. Damages for willful violation may be as high as $100,000 per instance. In 1992, the penalty for infringement of computer software copyright (piracy) was raised to felony status, with fines up to $250,000.

Liability for copyright infringement may extend up the chain of command, from librarian or instructor, to dean, president and system liability. Employees can be considered "contributory infringers" if the assisted or helped the infringer or where in a position to control the use of a copyrighted work.