Skip to Main Content

Copyright, Creative Commons, & Fair Use

About Copyright

What is copyright?

"Copyright" refers to laws created by a country that grants creators of original works exclusive rights over how a work is used and distributed for a certain period of time. Copyright laws can differ by country, as there is no universal copyright law but this guide will focus on U.S. law and regulations.

These rights usually cover attribution, reproduction, distribution, public performance, and derivative works, hence "All Rights Reserved."

The original purpose of copyright laws in the United States was to encourage creative and artistic endeavors by granting creators rights that would allow them to profit commercially off their creative works for a set amount of time, after which the works copyright would expire along with the creators rights to that work. Currently in the U.S. all "fixed works" (meaning it has been published or recorded, and is not just a thought or idea) are automatically copyrighted, but filing with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is under the Library of Congress, will make it easier to defend one's copyright in court.

Though copyright terms in the U.S. have changed over the years, a general rule of thumb for current copyright terms is the authors life plus 70 years (after their death).

Additional Resources on Copyright

What does copyright cover?

What can be copyrighted?

Anything in "fixed" form including

  • written works such as books and plays
  • images such as photographs, drawings, and paintings
  • musical and sound recordings and written scores
  • audiovisual works such as films and videos
  • choreographed works such as dances
  • physical works such as sculptures and architecture.

What can't be copyrighted?

Works not in a "fixed" form cannot be copyrighted such as

  • ideas
  • performances such as dances that have not be recorded (aka "fixed")
  • discoveries

Works that are not deemed sufficiently original or creative such as

  • instructions
  • ingredient lists

Works that are covered by trademark law such as

  • slogans
  • logos

Works that are covered by patent law such as

  • inventions

What rights does the copyright holder have?

The copyright holder has the exclusive rights to

  • make copies of the work and distribute those copies
  • sell copies of the work or license others to make copies/sell copies of the work
  • perform or display the work publicly

Can I used copyrighted material?

Yes, copyrighted materials can be used through licensing or Fair Use