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, authors are often required 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(on various types of media), musical scores and compositions, architectural designs, video games, software code, unpublished creative works, and more.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.
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.
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 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.