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Copyright Overview

What is copyright?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works by granting to them exclusive rights to do or allow others to do the following things:
  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works based on the original
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly
Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, but it may protect the way these things are expressed. For example, facts in a history text are not protected by copyright, but the book in which those facts appear would be.

It is a violation of copyright law for anyone to exercise these rights without the copyright holder's permission. In other words, doing any of these things without the permission of the copyright holder is a copyright violation. These rights are not absolute, however, and the Copyright Act establishes a number of limitations on these rights. One major limitation is the "fair use" doctrine.

When does protection begin?

Protection begins at the moment your original work is created and fixed in a "tangible medium of expression." In other words, copyright protection begins at the moment your work is created.

It is no longer necessary to include the copyright symbol on your work to receive protection. There are benefits of doing so, however, including putting others on notice that you are the copyright holder.

How long does copyright last?

This is a complex question and depends on a number of factors including whether it was published, and if it was, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for 70 years past the life of the author. Anonymous works, pseudonymous works, or works for hire have a copyright duration of 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

For works published before 1978, copyright duration varies depending on several factors including whether legal formalities were met and whether the copyright registration was renewed. To help to you determine the copyright status of these works, Cornell University has an excellent resource on its web site that should help you.

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