Copyright refers to a type of intellectual property law that was originally intended to protect the rights of authors of creative works. This guide focuses on some of the basics of U.S. copyright law. Copyright laws of other countries will differ and are not covered in this guide.
The original intent of copyright law was to give authors and creators the rights to determine how their creative works might be used, reproduced or copied, distributed, adapted, performed, or displayed.
However, in academia and the publishing world today, it's important to note that publishers have often required authors to assign their copyright to their publisher. This means copyright today may not always be protecting the rights of authors, as originally intended, but rather publishers who stand to profit from controlling access and use of the work. (We'll look at authors' rights elsewhere in this guide.)
U.S. copyright law covers original creative works. The term "creative works" covers a wide spectrum of material including research articles, books and manuscripts in any field, artwork (paintings; sculpture; graphics; photographs, etc.), video and audio recordings (on various types of media), musical scores and compositions, architectural designs, video games, software code, unpublished creative works, and more.
When and how does copyright protection begin?
As soon as a creative work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," it is automatically protected by copyright. This means that a saved draft of an original paper is protected, as is the final published version.
There's some jargon in that last paragraph, so let's parse that legal phrase. According to Wex Legal Dictionary from Cornell University Law School, a work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression when:
"... its embodiment ... by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration."
Source: Wex Legal Dictionary
Who holds the copyright? Authors and creators are automatically the copyright holders of their own original "fixed" creative works, unless they sign over their copyrights to someone else. The author or creator does not need to file for a copyright, put a copyright symbol on their online work, or take any action for copyright protection to take effect for their "fixed" creative works.
Digital works are protected too! We may not think of digital works as "fixed" in the same sense that a hardback book is, but the U.S. Copyright Act was updated to explicitly include works "...if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission."1 In other words, digital media, websites, etc. are "fixed" as they are transmitted (being viewed, read, heard, experienced, etc.) through use of computers or other devices.
1. Source: Wex Legal Dictionary
If an item or material is not considered creative expression in the broadest sense possible, it cannot be copyrighted. Examples here would be sheer facts; a phone book that lists names A-Z; a name or short phrase; plain factual data arranged in a spreadsheet, such as a monthly record of rainfall amounts. Similarly, items that are not fixed cannot be copyrighted. Examples here would be ideas, or a speech that is not written down or recorded in any way.
Note that there could be subtle exceptions here. Facts and data are often analyzed, selected, described, interpreted, and organized in an interesting or unique way, and presented in a creative and fixed format - for example, a book called 101 Facts about Bears or a colorful and unique infographic poster poster on Big Data that involved data selection, interpretation, graphic design layout, and so on. Such works (not the facts or data themselves) would be both creative and fixed, and thus protected by copyright.
, even if a work is not copyrighted, you still need to to give credit to the original creator.
This page's content revised & updated 2.24.17