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Copyright Resources: Basics

Copyright Basics

Most works are protected by copyright
Almost all creative and intellectual work is protected by copyright.  Remember that facts are not subject to copyright.

Copyright is automatic
Works do not have to have copyright notice posted or be registered in any way in order to be protected by copyright. This means that everything from a novel to a napkin doodle has full and automatic copyright protections.

Copyright lasts a long time...
Works are protected for the life of the author, plus seventy years. If a work was “made for hire [pdf]” it is protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the creation of the work (whichever is less). The rules are different for works made before 1978 and incredibly complicated. Try this copyright slider from the Copyright Advisory Network when in doubt.

...but not forever
Works with expired copyright pass into the public domain and are available to be used in whatever way you’d like. Also not protected by copyright are works created by the US government (and some states), facts, ideas, and methods.

See also: Frequently Asked Questions About Copyright by the U.S. Copyright Office

The Rights of Copyright 

Copyright is seen as a bundle of rights.  These rights include the right to:

  • Make copies of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work (by selling, renting, lending, or giving it away)
  • Perform or display the work publicly
  • Make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations

Because these rights are imagined as a bundle, the owner of the copyright can give away, sell, or otherwise license some or all of these rights to others (as when an author negotiates a contract - they may give the publisher the right to copy and distribute the work but not make future derivative works, for instance).

Check out these books materials about copyright and fair use owned and licensed by CCSF Library.

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 This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. 

from US Copyright Office "Copyright Basics"

See also U.S. Copyright Act, U.S. Code, Title 17

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What Copyright Does and Doesn't Protect

What Copyright Protects

Copyright only applies to the following kinds of works:

  • literary works
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works (see also: Architecture Guide | Copyright tab)

This list encompasses most kinds of creative or intellectual expression.  Works must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression".  Unfixed works like improvised music, speeches, or dances are not protected by copyright.

Remember: copyright is not designed to reward hard work but, rather, to foster creativity.  Works that took a lot of effort to put together but that don't contain original expression do not qualify for copyright protection.

What is NOT Protected by Copyright

  • procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation (these are protected by patents)
  • ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • other unoriginal or unfixed works

In a Nutshell

This 10 minute video covers the basics without violating copyright.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by CCSF Library is licensed by City College of San Francisco under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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