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Copyright: Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics

What Does Copyright Protect?
In the United States, copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”  A work in fixed form does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or marked with the symbol © or the word “Copyright” to be copyright protected.

This includes: 

  • literature

  • music

  • dramatic performances

  • choreography and dance

  • Pictures, and graphics

  • sculptures

  • audiovisual works 

  • architectural works

  •  software

What Does Copyright Not Protect?
Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods, concepts, principles, or discoveries, “regardless of the form in which these are described, explained, illustrated, or embodied” in a copyrighted work (U.S.C. 17 §102).

Who Owns Copyright?
Under U.S. Copyright Law, the author of an original work in fixed form owns the copyright to the work unless the author was hired to create the work, in which case copyright is owned by the employer.  The Intellectual Property Policy of Carnegie Mellon University explains who owns the intellectual property created by faculty, students, and staff in their relationship with Carnegie Mellon.

What Rights do Copyright Owners Have?
Copyright owners have the exclusive rights to copy and distribute their work, to perform or display it publicly, and to make derivative works (U.S.C. 17 §106).  If someone else wants to use the work, the copyright owner’s permission is required unless the use is granted by a licensing agreement or an exception or limitation in the Copyright Act.  Exceptions and limitations are addressed in the Fair Use Policy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Copyright owners can legally transfer their exclusive rights, individually or grouped, to someone else.  The transfer can be exclusive or non-exclusive.   After exclusive transfer of a right, the author no longer retains that right and cannot transfer or license that right to others.  After a non-exclusive transfer, the author still retains the transferred right and can transfer or license that right to others.  Carnegie Mellon encourages authors to be wary of exclusive transfer of their copyrights, particularly to commercial publishers.  

Copyright owners can also license use of their work without transferring copyright.  Licenses specify Terms of Use, what users may do with a work without requesting the copyright owner’s written permission.  For years, licenses have been attached to material available commercially, for example, the contents of a database, a musical CD, a movie on DVD, or a software application.  More recently, open licenses have been developed and attached to material that is freely available (open access) on the Internet.  Open licenses encourage use of open content by removing one or more copyright restrictions while retaining other copyright protections, for example, allowing users to copy and distribute the work, but prohibiting commercial use or the making of derivative works.

What Can I Do if I Don't Own the Copyright?
U.S. copyright law specifies many limitations and exceptions to the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, most notably fair use.  If the right to use someone else’s copyrighted work in a particular way is not granted by copyright law or a licensing agreement, you must acquire written permission for the use, either through a licensing agency or directly from the copyright owner.  Alternatively you could find another work to use, for example, a work in the public domain (copyright expired).  See Using other people’s copyrighted work.   

US Legal Code Related to Copyright

U.S.C. 17 §102
Code relevant to copyright protection

U.S.C. 17 §107
Code relevant to fair use exceptions

U.S.C. 17 §108
Code relevant to exceptions for libraries and archives

U.S.C. 17 §109
Code relevant to first sale (the right to sell or loan a copyrighted item you have purchased)

U.S.C. 17 §201-205
Code relevant to copyright ownership and transfer

U.S.C. 17 §301-305
Code relevant to copyright duration

What is Copyright?

Length of Copyright

How Long Does Copyright Last?
Copyright does not last forever. 

Under the terms of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, works created in the United States since 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, or, in the case of works for hire or anonymous/pseudonymous works, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

What Happens When Copyright Expires?
Upon expiration of the terms, works would enter into the Public Domain. 

Works published between 1923 and 1978 would vary according with how they were published, registered, and renewed after a 20 year stoppage. 

Beginning in 2019, works published in 1923 would enter the Public Domain and every preceding year would follow suit.

Public Domain

"Public Domain" means that a work is no longer protected by copyright and is free for others to use without having to obtain permission from the owner. 

Since 2019, works created in 1923 in the United States have entered into the public domain every year on January 01. 

January 01 is celebrated as Public Domain Day.  

As of January 01, 2021 all works from 1925 are in the public domain. 

For more resources on Public Domain Day, please visit the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University School of Law


Orphan Works

Orphan Works are works where the copyright holder or copyright status is unknown and the copyright holder cannot be located or identified. 

Without knowing who the copyright holder is, or being able to contact them, it can be difficult to secure the proper permissions to use another's work. 

In this situation, one should consider their use using the four factors of fair use, evaluate the work being used, and if necessary - consider using something else where the proper permissions can be obtained.