Copyright Basics FAQ

These frequently asked questions explain what a copyright is and what exactly it protects.

What types of creative work does copyright protect?

Copyright protects works such as poetry, movies, CD-ROMs, video games, videos, plays, paintings, sheet music, recorded music performances, novels, software code, sculptures, photographs, choreography and architectural designs.

To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means that the work must exist in some physical form for at least some period of time, no matter how brief. Virtually any form of expression will qualify as a tangible medium, including a computer’s random access memory (RAM), the recording media that capture all radio and television broadcasts, and the scribbled notes on the back of an envelope that contain the basis for an impromptu speech.

In addition, the work must be original — that is, independently created by the author. It doesn’t matter if an author’s creation is similar to existing works, or even if it is arguably lacking in quality, ingenuity or aesthetic merit. So long as the author toils without copying from someone else, the results are protected by copyright.

Finally, to receive copyright protection, a work must be the result of at least some creative effort on the part of its author. There is no hard and fast rule as to how much creativity is enough. As one example, a work must be more creative than a telephone book’s white pages, which involve a straightforward alphabetical listing of telephone numbers rather than a creative selection of listings.

Does copyright protect an author’s creative ideas?

No. Copyright shelters only fixed, original and creative expression, not the ideas or facts upon which the expression is based. For example, copyright may protect a particular song, novel or computer game about a romance in space, but it cannot protect the underlying idea of having a love affair among the stars. Allowing authors to monopolize their ideas would thwart the underlying purpose of copyright law, which is to encourage people to create new work.

For similar reasons, copyright does not protect facts — whether scientific, historical, biographical or news of the day. Any facts that an author discovers in the course of research are in the public domain, free to all. For instance, anyone is free to use information included in a book about how the brain works, an article about the life and times of Neanderthals or a TV documentary about the childhood of President Clinton — provided that that they express the information in their own words.

Facts are not protected even if the author spends considerable time and effort discovering things that were previously unknown. For example, the author of the book on Neanderthals takes ten years to gather all the necessary materials and information for her work. At great expense, she travels to hundreds of museums and excavations around the world. But after the book is published, any reader is free to use the results of this ten year research project to write his or her own book on Neanderthals — without paying the original author.

How long does a copyright last?

For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work is a work for hire (that is, the work is done in the course of employment or has been specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work is published.

All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, even if the author died over 70 years ago, the copyright in an unpublished work lasts until December 31, 2002. And if such a work is published before December 31, 2002, the copyright will last until December 31, 2047.

  • Telonius

    Thanks for this great information!
    A question: if facts are not protected by copyright law, could anyone just take any book and rewrite the content in his own words and then sell it as a new book? I don’t talk about morality. Clearly, this would be a doubtful practice. But we see this very often. New books are just a shallow rehash of old ones. The rewording is what originality and creative effort comprise in these cases, right? You say originality means independent creation. Strictly, no information book can be created independently of other books or media input. Again, facts are not protected and need not to spring out of nowhere or own research. So were do we draw the line? Do we have to blend information of at least 3 or 4 other books to create a new one that not infringes copyright?
    Looking forward to your reply!

  • Ricky Schurr

    Thanks for the post. Im not sure if this would be a copyright issue or not. If not i’m hoping you can point me in the right direction. About 19 years ago, When I was 17 years old, I recorded a song in a studio. A total of 5 sessions at 2 hours each. I had to do it this way because i was paying for my studio time out of my own pocket, and with school i wasn’t able to afford to do it differently. The sessions included time spent working with the engineer to create the music and time recording the vocals. Once the song was complete I was approached by the owner of the studio about releasing the song and was given a contract to sign. I asked if I could take the contract home to have my parents go over it and would bring it back when I came back for the next session to start work on another project and was told that was fine. Now this is my problem, I never had anything copyrighted, This was all new to me and I was under the impression that if i hand’t signed anything I had nothing to worry about. Stupid I know! So I never made it back to the studio to start that next project or with the contract. About 6 months pass and I am approached by a friend on the street who is playing the song that I had written and recorded. I immediately asked him how he had gotten it, He told me he had bought it at the store in the mall. This wasn’t anything my parents had supported, hence the reason I never got the contract back and also the reason i never really pursued this. Again I was 17 when This all happened. Today I am 38 and have found out that my voice and song and name has now been released on two different cd’s and is available on iTunes for purchase. I remember reading in the contract I was given that I would receive 8 % of net royalties. I’m sorry if this is a stupid question and for my lack of knowledge on this matter but is it possible to copyright my work now or is it too late? Did they already copyright my work as their own in order to release it? I do know the label who issued the contract was one partly owned by the owner of the recording studio. Is there anything I can do about this? Do i have any rights to my work or the royalties that have been collected over the last 19 years? Again, the song was released on 2 different cd’s from 2 different record labels and is available in iTunes for purchase. I was also informed that i am listed as an artist on mtv’s webpage. If you could advise me on this or at least point me in the right direction to try and resolve this, I would greatly appreciate it!

  • yelp46

    This is from a novice. I am planning to give presentation to 30 peer teachers in Early Childhood employed in our school district. I wanted to use the author’s Chapter 9 )about 30 pages). I also would like to present some of the author’s pages in a Power Point presentation. The book in its 2nd edition was published in 2013. In addition, can i copy the Chapter and make 30copies for distribution to the same per audience. Must I request permission from the publisher?

  • CC

    Dear Rich,
    I am completing my thesis and have a copyright questions (I’m actually in a slight panic. I’m turning in my thesis this week) With the exception of graphs and tables, do I need copyright permision to quote an author or data? Or is this covered under facts?