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A guide to help CSU faculty, staff, and students answer questions about copyright. THE INFORMATION ON THIS GUIDE DOES NOT SERVE AS LEGAL ADVICE.

Copyright Basics

Copyright can seem confusing or frustrating, especially if you're the one trying to use a copyrighted work. However, copyright plays an important role in our society by encouraging innovation and creativity.

Copyright serves two purposes:

1) to incentivize creativity and innovation

2) to allow the fruits of creativity and innovation to be enjoyed by society

It does this by giving creators exclusive rights to their work, during which they can make money off the work and present it as their own. Then, after a set period of time, those exclusive rights are no longer only granted to the author; everyone can use the work to create new works and learn from that work, benefiting society as a whole.

According to United States Code, copyright is “the right of authors to control the use of their work for a limited period of time.”

The exclusive rights which Congress grants under the copyright are:

  • To reproduce a work,
  • To prepare derivative works,
  • To sell, rent, lease, lend, or otherwise distribute the work,
  • To perform the work publicly,
  • To display the work publicly, and
  • To publicly perform a work on a sound recording via digital transmission

To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original, and it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The law lists eight media of expression which are included, but the list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings

A work is copyrighted if it is original and fixed in a tangible form. Works no longer must be registered and fixed with a copyright symbol to be protected. An original work fixed in a tangible medium is automatically protected by copyright.

Works which are not original, or which are not tangibly fixed, are not protected. The law also identifies several classes of material which are not subject to copyright protection:

  • Ideas
  • Procedures, processes, systems, and methods of operation,
  • Concepts and principles
  • Discoveries

Works created by employees of the United States federal government in the course of their employment are also not protected by copyright. Once a work's copyright term has ended, that work is no longer protected by copyright and enters the public domain (see the Public Domain tab).

How long does copyright last? It depends! Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. If the author is a corporation then the protection is for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time. See the Copyright Term Tool developed by Cornell University for more information. Generally, works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.

Helpful Copyright Links