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Copyright Basics

An introduction to the principles of copyright law.


What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights provided to the copyright holder that allow them to control certain uses of their copyright-protected works. These exclusive rights are balanced by a set of exceptions, like fair use, that grant users the right to use copyrighted works in certain ways. 


What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression." (17 U.S.C. § 102.) Notice ("Copyright © 2018 by Toni Morrison") and registration are no longer required for works to be protected.
Works of authorship include the following categories:
  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works. (17 U.S.C. § 102.)


What is not protected by copyright?
Copyright does not protect "any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery." (17 U.S.C. § 102.) Copyright also does not protect works for which the copyright term has expired or for which copyright protection never existed, like works of the U.S. Government


How do I get a copyright?
Once you have created an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, the work is automatically copyrighted. You don't need to do anything else, like register the work or include copyright notice. Registration and notice may help others know that you own the copyright in the work, and registration has other legal benefits, but neither are required. 


Who holds copyrights?

In the United States, the default copyright holder in a work is its author, which in most cases is the work's creator or creators (if the work is an intended joint work). 
In the case of a work made for hire, the copyright holder is the person who employed or commissioned the creator of the work. In the first case, the work would be a work made for hire if it was created by an employee acting within the scope of their employment. In the second case, the work would be a work made for hire if it was commissioned "for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire." (17 U.S.C. § 101.)
The Northwestern Copyright Policy addresses copyright in the Northwestern University Academic Community.


How long does copyright last? 

Currently, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus seventy years. (17 U.S.C. § 302.)
Previously, copyright duration depending on many different factors. To determine how long copyright lasts in a given work, see the Copyright Term and the Public Domain chart.
Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties are automatically in the public domain. (17 U.S.C. § 105.)


What rights are included in a copyright?

The exclusive rights in copyrighted works are:  
  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  6. in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. (17 U.S.C. § 106.)


What is the public domain?
A work that is in the public domain is a work that is not protected by copyright. This may be because the copyright of the work has expired, the work was not protected by copyright law, or the work was dedicated to the public domain by its creator.


What is the Copyright Claims Board?
In 2020, Congress passed a law called the “Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2020,” known as the “CASE Act.” The CASE Act mandated the formation of the Copyright Claims Board (CCB), a tribunal operating through the U.S. Copyright Office instead of the federal judicial branch, for the purpose of deciding “small claims” copyright infringement actions via a quicker, less expensive process — that is, without all of the procedural requirements of a normal federal court case. Damages are capped at $30,000 for CCB cases. 
You can learn more about the CCB at The Copyright Claims Board: Small Claims Guide


Copyright Resources

U.S. Copyright Office

The Copyright Office website allows you to register copyrights, search copyright records, and learn more about copyright.


Copyright and Fair Use (Stanford University Libraries)

This website offers an overview of most aspects of copyright law, including fair use, permissions, and the public domain. 


Copyright Advisory Services (Columbia University Libraries)

This website offers a useful overview of copyright, fair use, and permissions.


Copyright Crash Course (University of Texas Libraries)

This guide allows anyone interested in understanding and managing their copyrights to explore different areas of copyright law.


Music Copyright Tutorials (College of William and Mary)

This series of videos provides an overview of copyright as it relates to music. 


Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University Library)

This comprehensive chart helps determine whether a work has entered the public domain in the U.S.


Public Domain Slider (Copyright Advisory Network)

This tool helps determine whether a work is still protected by copyright.


The Copyright Claims Board: Small Claims Guide

This Northwestern guide offers an overview of the newly created Copyright Claims Board and related small claims copyright infringement notices.


The Online Books Page: Copyright Registration and Renewal Records (University of Pennsylvania)

This website helps determine whether the copyright for a work has been renewed. See How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed? for more information on how to investigate renewals.  

Institute for Intellectual Property & Social Justice

This organization looks at intellectual property through a social justice lens, offering online resources and an annual conference.