Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics  

What is a copyright?  It is a limited monopoly given to authors and creators of intellectual property to control uses of their work.

Why was copyright created? The Constitutional purpose of copyright is to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts" by giving authors and creators limited monopoly over uses of their work.  The enrichment of authors/creators is a secondary goal.
• Fundamentals: Copyright protection
        - Applies to works in every media format.
        - Arises automatically (no action required) as soon as
                →   an original work (writing, photo, song, movie, etc.)
                →   is fixed in a tangible medium of expression (written, recorded, photographed, etc.)

        - The © notice is no longer required for works created after 1989.

        - Works do not need to be published or registered in order to be fully protected by copyright.                

- However, timely registration with the U.S. Copyright Office will affect amount of damages recoverable.

   Your default assumption should be that most works you encounter are copyrighted whether or not there is a copyright notice.

• What is meant by giving the author a "limited monopoly?" 

The Constitution recognizes that intellectual property is fundamentally different than other types of property and that for society to advance, people need to be able to access, use, and build upon what has come before.  At the same time, creators should be given incentives and rewards for the things they create.  Copyright law tries to balance the needs of society to access and use protected works with the need to incentivize and reward creators.

Towards that end, Congress was empowered, in the Constitution, to create laws designed to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."  Again, note that the progress of science and the useful arts is explicitly stated as the primary purpose of copyright.  Copyright law does not exist, as is often asserted, soley to enrich copyright holders. 

To accomplish this objective, copyright law begins with the set of exclusive rights given to copyright holders followed by important limitations on those exclusive rights that advance society's need to use copyrighted works. Examples of such essential uses are education, parody, news reporting, criticism, and commentary.

 These are the exclusive rights granted to a copyright holder:

  • To reproduce the work (copy)
  • To make derivative works (modify or base your work on it)
  • To distribute the work
  • To publicly perform the work
  • To publicly display the work
  • To publicly perform a sound recording by digital transmission

 Limitations, particularly those relevant to higher education and libraries, on these exclusive rights include:

How long does a copyright last?

A copyright does not last forever.  However, determining whether a copyright term has expired can be difficult due to numerous changes to copyright law over the years.  In addition to works whose copyright term has expired, the following works are in the public domain:

  • Works created by federal government employees with the scope of their employment;
  • Works published in the U.S. before 1923; However, beginning January 1, 2019, this benchmark -1923- will update to 1924.  And each year thereafter, the benchmark year will progress. For example, on January 1, 2020, the benchmark year will be 1925 and so on.
  • Works that failed to comply with required formalities, when required (e.g., no © notice before 1989).

The term of copyright: