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Copyright Basics

Copyright Defined



Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.


The Law

The United States copyright law is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976, which took effect on January 1, 1978.

Protected Works

What is protected?

Eight categories of works are copyrightable:

  1. Literary, musical and dramatic works.
  2. Pantomimes and choreographic works.
  3. Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.
  4. Sound recordings.
  5. Motion pictures and other AV works.
  6. Computer programs.
  7. Compilations of works and derivative works.
  8. Architectural works.

NOTE: For a work to be copyrighted it must be an original work of authorship which is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” (Written down, recorded, or captured in some way.) It does not need to have the © symbol. 

Examples of copyrighted works: Emails or letters written to a friend, a YouTube video, a song on Reverbnation, a photograph on a website or in a book etc...


Length of Protection

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time.

This differs if the work was created by a corporate author which uses a different formula.

For more information regarding the length of a copyright, please see the copyright duration chart.


Author Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins died January 31, 2007. Her works such as Who Let the Dogs In and Bill of Wrongs, which were all created after 1978, are protected under the copyright law until 2077.

Unprotected Works

What is not protected?

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes 

  • Example: The process for making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich cannot be copyright but the words, images and graphics used to explain it can be.

Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans 

  • Example:You can name your child the same name as a famous person or character, i.e. James Bond

Facts, news, and research are not copyrightable 

  • Example: On November 6, 2012 Barack Obama, the United States first black president, was re-elected for a 2nd term

Works in the public domain(work that no longer is under copyright protection or never was, like government documents)

  • Example: The text of the U.S. Constitution or works published in the U.S. prior to 1923.
  • Example: William Shakespeare died in 1616, all his works are in the public domain. You are free to adapt and create your own version of these famous stories. Just don't reuse elements used by other adaptations like the 1996 film staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.