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Copyright Law

The Law

Congress has the power, “…to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8

View the full text of U.S. copyright law.

This legislation grants the creator (author, artist, composer, etc.) the exclusive right to control several aspects of their work for a limited period of time: the right to reproduce the work; the right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work; the right to distribute copies of the work by sale (or other transfer of ownership), rental, lease, or lending; the right to perform a work publicly; and the right to display a work publicly. Section 106 of the law sets out these rights.

As with every rule, there are limitations and exceptions to copyright law.

What is protected?

Copyright protects works that are:

  • Original – works must be unique, not a copy of another person’s work
  • Fixed – A work must be written down or recorded on a physical or digital medium

Works are protected the moment they become fixed. There is no need to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive this protection. Despite this, registration is not a bad idea because it is required before a lawsuit can be filed in the event that someone infringes on a creator’s copyright. See Section 102 of copyright law for more details.

What is not protected?

Copyright does not cover everything. Materials excluded from this legislation include ideas, titles, facts, processes, works prepared by the federal government, or works in the public domain. Again, see Section 102 of copyright law for more information.

The fact that ideas are not protected by copyright law is one of the more difficult concepts to understand. A person can have an idea for a short story, but until that idea is fixed in print, it is not covered by copyright law. It is also for this reason that people can have two short stories about the same general topic or theme. Copyright protects only the expression of the idea and the order of the physical words on the page, not the idea itself.

Length of copyright term

Copyright laws have changed over the years and so not all works follow these exact rules. Under current laws, the copyright for works created now begins when the work is created and lasts throughout the author’s life, plus seventy years. Works created earlier follow a variety of different rules.

Professor Lolly Gasaway of the University of North Carolina has created an extremely helpful copyright terms chart that can help you determine which term laws a work follows. The Cornell Copyright Information Center has also produced a copyright status chart that goes into more detail.

How can I register my work?

Again it is not necessary to do this – your work is protected by copyright the moment it becomes fixed. However, it can be helpful in legal situations. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office to register online or by mail.