What is Copyright?

Posted on Posted in FAQs

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “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 Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” Whew. That’s a mouthful! Let’s try to break this definition down.

The types of original works of authorship that copyright protects include poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture, but not facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation – although it may protect the way these things are expressed. For a more detailed list of protected works, see § 102 of the 1976 Copyright Act.

Just remember: expressions of ideas can be copyrighted but not the ideas themselves. That’s why your poignant, lyrical song LOVE could receive copyright protection but you couldn’t get a copyright for the idea of love itself.

Once you create an original work, you automatically have a copyright. To obtain additional rights, you may apply for a copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office. It is not necessary for your work to be published to be covered by copyright laws. For more information on registering for a copyright, see our post “How Do I Get a Copyright?”

Under federal law (§ 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act) the owner of a copyright has a number of exclusive rights, which in some circumstances include the right to:

  • reproduce the work;
  • prepare derivative works based on the work;
  • distribute copies of the work to the public; and
  • display or perform the work publicly.


There are also significant limitations on the rights of copyright holders, including fair use and reproduction by libraries and archives, among many others as listed in Chapter 1 of the 1976 Copyright Act. In a nutshell, a copyright owner has some serious exclusive rights in a copyrighted work, but these rights have certain limitations.

So how long does copyright protection last? This is a complicated issue that depends on many factors, including the type of work and the date of creation. Generally, works created after January 1, 1978, are afforded copyright protection that lasts for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. For more information on the many factors that go into determining the length of copyright protection, see the U.S. Copyright Office’s circular “Duration of Copyright.”


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