Copyright Law Overview

Copyright is the protection provided by the U.S. Constitution to original published and unpublished works. Copyright applies automatically to every creation at the time it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Categories of works that are copyrightable include:

  • Literary, musical and dramatic works.
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works.
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.
  • Sound recordings.
  • Motion pictures and other AV works.
  • Computer programs.
  • Compilations of works and derivative works.
  • Architectural works

Facts, ideas, titles, phrases, procedures, methods, systems, are not copyrightable.

Rights granted to the copyright holder are as follows:

  • the right to reproduce the work
  • the right to distribute the work
  • the right to make derivative works
  • the right to publicly display or perform the works

Under current copyright law, it is not necessary to register your copyright or even place a copyright notice on the work to enjoy the protection of the copyright law. Materials are copyrighted as soon as they are created. However, a simple statement on your work will let others know that it is covered by copyright and that you hold the rights. You can establish the strongest legal claim by paying a nominal fee and registering your copyrighted materials with the US Copyright Office. Information about this process can be found at the US Copyright Office web site.

The Creative Commons organization offers a variety of licensing options for creators who would like to retain some copyright protection but still allow others to use and build upon their work.

Copyright law does allow for the use of copyrighted material without asking for permission. Some works may be outside the copyright period (in the public domain) or if still covered under copyright, use may fall under the Fair Use provision. It is up to you to determine whether the work you wish to use is still under copyright. For more information regarding the length of a copyright, please see the copyright duration chart.


Digital Materials and Distance Education »

Digital materials have always been protected under traditional copyright. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 expanded the scope of copyright law to protect these digital materials. Title 17 of the U.S. Code was modified to reflect the growing concern of infringement of these items. Circumvention of measures to prevent infringement (such as encryption) was made illegal.

The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002 added provisions (amending section 110 of the Copyright Law) for digital material transmitted via distance education. The TEACH Act expands the scope of educators' rights to perform and display works and to make the copies available for digital distance education, however audiovisual works and dramatic musical works may only be shown in limited portions (as clips).