What is copyright?
Copyright in its most basic form is actually just that: the right to copy. The term "copyright," however, is a bit misleading: Copyright is not just one right - it is a multitude of exclusive rights that an author or creator has over their work. Copy rights. These rights include, for example, the right to distribute a work, to translate it, to post it online, etc.
Copyright isn't just one right: Copyright is a bundle of rights.
CC BY Sarah Wipperman
In the United States and many other countries, copyright is a form of intellectual property that gives an author/creator legal protection over their original work and how it is reused, redistributed, reproduced. This guide focuses on U.S. copyright law, but you can take a look at the International Laws section of this guide if you want to know more about copyright in other countries.
What gets copyrighted and when?
Copyright is applied to any original work created in a fixed, tangible form, and it happens immediately (as soon as it is put in a fixed, tangible form). So, this guide I'm writing right now? Copyrighted. That email I sent to a colleague this morning? Copyrighted. Notes I took in class last semester? Yup, those are copyrighted, too.
|Types of Copyrightable Works||Types of Non Copyrightable Works|
|literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual creations||names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, listings of contents or ingredients|
Since the law only give copyright to things in a "fixed, tangible form," however, ideas, concepts, procedures, etc. cannot be copyrighted. Likewise, the work must be original, so small variations of an existing work, facts, or even names, slogans, or short phrases cannot be copyrighted - I cannot, for example, change the current Facebook symbol from blue to purple and claim copyright over it. Note that copyright is not the same as trademark, which governs corporate identity, or trademark, which protects inventions or discoveries.
Since copyright is immediate, both published and unpublished works have copyright protection, and you do not need to formally register for copyright in order to have protection over your work. There are, however, some benefits to doing so. See the Registering for Copyright section for more information.
If you are interested in knowing more about what is and is not protected under copyright, please see the United States Copyright Office's FAQ, "What Does Copyright Protect?"
How long does copyright last?
The term of U.S. copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.
See the Is It Copyrighted? section of this guide to learn more about how to determine the length of copyright.
Since copyright is automatic for works eligible for copyright (see above - What gets copyrighted and when?), U.S. law currently does not require you to place a copyright notice on your work. Doing so can, however, be beneficial: it tells people that the work is protected under copyright (which means that in court, a defendant's use of an innocent infringement defense - that they did not know the work was protected - would not be given weight), who owns the copyright, and when the work was published/created.
If you want people to be able to share and (re)use your work, however, you might consider using a Creative Commons license ("some rights reserved") instead of the traditional copyright notice ("all rights reserved"). See Open Licensing (GUIDE COMING SOON!) for more information.
Adding a copyright notice
If you want to put a copyright notice on your work, it is your responsibility to do so, and you do not need to formally register for copyright or receive any permission in order to do so. Note that adding a copyright notice to your work is NOT the same as formally registering for copyright. See the Registering for Copyright page for more information.
A copyright notice should have the three following elements:
Example: © 2011 Jane Doe
*The © symbol should ONLY be used on "visually perceptible copies" (i.e., not audio/sound); audio recordings are considered "phonorecords," not "copies," and thus use the symbol ℗ instead of ©.
The position of the notice depends on the type of material. For more information on the copyright notice, how to add a notice and where, see Circular 3, Copyright Notice.
This guide is meant purely for educational purposes, and none of the content should be in any way construed as legal advice.