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What is Copyright?

Copyright is protection provided by law (title 17, U.S. Code) to creators of “original works of authorship,” including paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, sound recordings, computer programs, books, poems, blog posts, movies, architectural works, plays, and other intellectual works. Protection provided by Copyright laws were created to provide balance and protect the rights of creators and users of copyrighted content.

To acquire copyright protection, a work must be an idea that is fixed in a tangible form of expression. A work is original when a human author produces it and it possesses at least a minimal degree of creativity. A work is fixed when is captured in a sufficiently permanent medium that would allow the work to be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection is automatic from the moment the original work is fixed.

Section 106 of the Copyright Law of the United States provides copyright owners with the following exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission
  • In the case of a "work of visual art" the author has certain rights of attribution and integrity

Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations.

However, the exclusive rights of a copyright owner are not unlimited. One of the most important limitations on exclusive rights is the doctrine of "Fair Use," which permits limited copying of a copyrighted work for educational or research purposes.

About this Guide

This guide is intended to be a basic guide for copyright and fair use and does not substitute or count for legal advice.