Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a federal law that protects a wide variety of creative works. It balances the rights of people who create such works with the rights of the public to use the works. 

How does a work become copyrighted?

To receive protection under U.S. Copyright law, a work must meet two requirements.  First, it must have a minimum level of creativity. An alphabetical listing of names and phone numbers in a white pages directory does not meet the requirements but information grouped by business categories such as a yellow pages directory would meet the creativity requirement.  Second, the work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It can be fixed in a print format or a sculpture or even a computer program.  What would not be considered fixed would be an extemporaneous speech that was not videotaped or recorded.

What is protected under copyright?

Copyright protects textual works, photographs, audiovisual works, websites, maps and many other works as well. Copyright does not protect ideas, methods, processes, facts, names and slogans.

How long are copyrighted works protected?

Copyrighted works are protected for life of the author plus seventy years for works created from 1978 to the present time.  For most works created prior to 1978, the copyright lasts for 95 years from date of publication.  Works by a corporate author are protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. Peter Hirtle’s chart of when works enter the public domain.

What is the public domain?

Works that are in the public domain are not protected by copyright and can be used without seeking permission or paying royalties. Works that are produced by the U.S. Federal government are public domain works.  For example images, texts and videos from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can be freely used. Works with expired copyrights are also in the public domain.  This would include works that were published in the U.S. prior to 1923.