Copyright Basics

What is copyright?
What protection does copyright provide?
What is copyright infringement?
What works are protected by copyright?
What works are not protected by copyright?
Who can claim copyright?
Does a work have to be published to be copyrighted?
Does a work have to have a copyright notice to be protected?
Does a work have to be registered with the US Copyright Office to be protected?
How long does copyright last?
How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?
How can I find out who owns a copyright?
How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?
Could I be sued for using somebody else's work? How about quotes or samples?

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States ( title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.

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What protection does copyright provide?

The owner of copyright for an “original work of authorship” has exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To make copies – in whole or in part – of the work
  • To create derivative works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies of the work, by sale or other transfer of ownership
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

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What is copyright infringement?

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the exclusive rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. See Limitations to Copyright.

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What works are protected by copyright?

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression (recorded physically or digitally in any way). Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  • Literary works;
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works
  • These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most “compilations” may be registered as “literary works”; maps and architectural plans may be registered as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”
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What works are not protected by copyright?

Generally speaking, copyright only protects the original expression of an idea (as long as that expression is in a fixed form), not the idea itself. Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include, among others:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded).
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources).

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Who can claim copyright?

Copyright protection is in place from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author, or those the author designates, can rightfully claim copyright.

Works for hire: In the case of works made for hire (see the Pacific University Intellectual Property Policy), the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.

Joint works: The authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright in the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary.

Contribution to a collected work: Copyright in each separate contribution to a periodical or other collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole and vests initially with the author of the contribution.

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Does a work have to be published to be copyrighted?

No. A work must no longer be published to receive copyright protection – as soon as a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” it is protected.

“Publication” is the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.

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Does a work have to have a copyright notice to be protected?

No. Works published after March 1, 1989 are not required to bear the copyright notice (“Copyright”, “©”, or “Copr.” + year of publication (or creation) + copyright owner’s name) to be protected. However, use of the notice is important because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. Furthermore, in the event that a work is infringed, if a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies, additional weight is given to the copyright owner’s case.

The use of the copyright notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office.

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Does a work have to be registered with the US Copyright Office to be protected?

No. Copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright. Even though registration is not a requirement for protection, the copyright law provides several advantages to encourage copyright owners to make registration.

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How long does copyright last?

The duration of copyright protection depends on when the work was created, whether or not it was published, and the identity/number of the authors. For current works:

A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. In the case of “a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

For information on works created before January 1, 1978, visit the Copyright Office website.

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How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?

You can ask for it. If you know who the copyright owner is, you may contact the owner directly. If you are not certain about the ownership or have other related questions, you may wish to request that the Copyright Office conduct a search of its records or you may search yourself. See the next question for more details.

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How can I find out who owns a copyright?

If there is a copyright notice on the work, it is safe to assume that the named person (or corporate body) is the copyright owner. If there is no copyright notice, contact the author of the work. If there is no named author, contact the US Copyright Office.

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How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?

It depends. There are several limitations to copyright protection — especially in relation to educational uses. The broadest limitation to copyright is the fair use doctrine (§ 107, US Copyright Law), which states that it is permissible to use limited portions of a work, including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.

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Could I be sued for using somebody else's work? How about quotes or samples?

If you use a copyrighted work without authorization, the owner may be entitled to bring an infringement action against you or the university. There are circumstances under the fair usedoctrine where a quote or a sample may be used without permission. However, in cases of doubt, it is recommended that you seek permission.

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Content on this page is adapted from United States Copyright Office Circular 1 and www.copyright.gov.