Copyright refers to exclusive rights granted by law to creators for protection of their work. The copyright restricts others from reproducing, distributing, and, in the case of certain works, publicly performing or displaying the work of the copyright holder. It also prevents others from preparing derivative works, and in the case of sound recordings, to performing the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Two primary rationales or philosophies for copyright are:
Utilitarian -- Copyright is an incentive for creative expression and encourages the creation of new works.
Author's Rights -- Copyright ensures that creators get credit for their work, and it is an acknowledgment of the deep connection authors and artists have to their creative works.
Copyright is automatic. It begins the moment a work is "created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device," according to Copyright.gov.
However, while copyright laws are strict, owners of copyrighted work may license others to use their work under specific terms and conditions. Creative Commons is one tool designed for this purpose. Creators also may allow the work to become public domain, which lets anyone reproduce or adapt the work free of terms or conditions.
What types of work can be copyrighted?
Furthermore, other original works such as applied art, industrial designs, models, and computer software also may be copyrighted depending on the country.
What cannot be copyrighted?
Ideas, procedures, processes, slogans, principles, or discoveries may not be copyrighted, but may fall under other forms of protection such as trademarks and patents. Works created by U.S. government employees during the course of their job generally cannot be copyrighted. As with most things, there are some exceptions.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office:
"The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics."
Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances such as for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. To avoid copyright infringement, it is important to evaluate your use of another person's work even if you think it falls within the fair use doctrine.
Kenneth D. Crews, formerly of Columbia University, and Dwayne K. Buttler of the University of Louisville are the original creators of the Fair Use Checklist, licensed by a Creative Commons Attribution License.
The public domain includes works that are not subject to copyright due to exemptions or because the copyright has expired or the creator did not maintain their copyright. It also includes works that creators have dedicated to the public domain.
Work that is in the public domain is available for anyone to do just about anything with it. There may be some limitations based on the country in which the work was created, and moral rights and other intellectual property rights also may restrict how the work may be adapted.
This Research Guide was created by librarian Michele Nicole Johnson in Fall 2019 as part of her course requirements for Creative Commons certification. Would you like to get involved in creating a collaborative global commons? There are several ways, including:
This Research Guide is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Images in collage -- Sketches photo by Craig Adderly / Pexels. Guitar man photo by Darwis Alwan / Pixabay. Girl face by Alexandr Ivanov / Pixabay. Photographer by Steven Van on Unsplash. Other images -- Scales illustration by Mohamed Hassan for Pixaby, modified by Michele Johnson CCO. Copyright symbol by Michele Johnson. Public Domain icon from Creative Commons.