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Copyright Defined

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Copyright: Refers to the legal right of creators (authors, artists, publishers, etc.) to control how their works are used by others. Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works fixed in a tangible medium of expression (writing, artwork, etc.). 

Goals of Copyright: The stated goal of US copyright law is to promote progress by securing time-limited exclusive rights for creators. (paraphrased from Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution)


Copyright is a legal right, grounded in the United States Constitution, that gives the owner of the copyright over a work the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (make copies of ) the work; 
  • Modify or prepare derivative works based on the work (examples of derivative works include translations, transforming printed works into musicals or films, rearrangements of scores, and any other recast, transformation or adaptation of a work); 
  • Distribute the work in any format by sale, publication, license, rental, or for free; 
  • Publicly perform or display the work; 
  • Authorize others to exercise some or all of those rights


*NOTE: Copyright law applies to nearly all creative and intellectual works and these works are protected automatically, regardless of copyright notice or registration.

What is covered by Copyright?

Original works, whether or not published, that exist in a tangible medium that can be touched, seen, heard, read and fall into one of the following categories are protected by copyright.

Copyright applies to a wide variety of works including, but not limited to: 

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, lyrics, and sound recordings
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Visual works (photographs, paintings, sculptures, maps, logos, etc.)
  6. Multimedia works, movies, and other audio-visual works
  7. Software code
  8. Architectural works, etc.

*NOTE: These works are protected from the moment they are in a fixed format regardless of whether they contain a copyright notice or copyright has been registered.

Copyright Ownership Explained

The Creator is the first copyright owner

As a general rule, the initial owner of the copyright is the person who brings the creative work into tangible form including the authoring of text, the taking of a photograph, or the drawing of an image. 

The Exception*: creating a work on someone’s behalf / "works made for hire"

If you created the work as an employee, acting within the scope of your employment, then the copyright owner is your employer. In addition, if you are a freelancer, and where your contract specifies that you have created a work as a “work made for hire”, then the first owner of the copyright is the person that contracted you to create it.

Copyright can be transferred

Copyright owners can transfer or sell their rights over a work to others. Usually, this transfer of copyright is temporarily obtained by contract called licensing agreements. The recipient of copyright by way of licensing agreement only has the ability to exercise those rights that are specified directly in the agreement. At the end of the life of the licensing agreement, those rights revert back to the copyright owner.

Copyright and Publishing Agreements

In an academic setting, creators are most frequently asked to transfer copyright over books and articles to publishers. It is not a requirement of publication that rights be transferred permanently to a publisher. The right to publish can be licensed to the publisher temporarily or on a non-exclusive basis. The ability to regain or retain copyright over a book or article provides an opportunity to the creator set future parameters of publication and distribution.

Copyright owners may allow public non-exclusive uses through Open Licensing

A copyright owner may grant rights to the public to use a copyrighted work. That grant could be a simple statement on the work explaining the allowed uses, or it may be a selection of a Creative Commons license. Similarly, the movement to make works "open access" or "open source" is a choice by the owner of the copyrighted work to make that work freely available to the public.

Duration of Copyright

Copyright applies for a limited term. The length of that term depends on when the work was first created, whether or not it has been published, and whether the work was first published in the US or abroad.

  • For works created in the US today, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator and in the case of a corporate author (which could include works for hire), copyright lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.
  • When the copyright term in a work expires, the work loses copyright protection and enters the public domain.  

To determine the copyright term for all other works, consult the Cornell University chart "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States."