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Copyright Basics: What is Copyright?

Definition and Overview

Copyright is the legal protection of authors to the exclusive right to copy, distribute copies of, or perform or display their work (Copyright Office Basics).

The US Copyright Act lists six rights exclusive to the copyright holder:

  1. make copies or recordings of the work
  2. create new works based on the original work
  3. sell, rent, lease, lend, or give away copies or recordings of the work
  4. publicly perform the work
  5. publicly display the work, including still images from movies or other audiovisual works
  6. in the case of music or other sound recordings, perform the work through a digital audio transmission, such as playing it on a radio station (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 106)

Authors are not required to register their works or use the © symbol in order to hold their exclusive rights. In addition, authors can agree to transfer these rights to someone else, such as a publisher, who will sell copies of the work (Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center).

In the United States, copyright law has its foundation in the US Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 states:

The 1976 Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) established copyright law in the US as we know it today. From 1976 to October 2007, there have been fifty-nine amendments to the law (U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Law).

UNC's Copyright Policy

(Copyright Policy of the University of North Carolina IV.A [PDF])

What Copyright Covers

Copyright law covers "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device" (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 102).

This includes:

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Drama

However, it does not include:

  • Ideas
  • Facts
  • Procedures

Copyright protection is not indefinite. How long it lasts depends on when the work was published:

  • works published before 1923: copyright has expired
  • works published between 1923 and 1977 with copyright notice: copyright lasts for 95 years after date of publication
  • works created between 1923 and 1977 but not published: copyright lasts for 70 years after the life of the author
  • works created or published after 1977: copyright lasts for 70 years after the life of the author
  • works published anonymously or works for hire after 1977: copyright lasts for 95-120 years
    (Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center)

Copyright also does not cover works in the public domain. That includes:

  • works whose copyright has expired
  • works published before 1989 without copyright notice
  • works created by US federal government employees as part of their job (however, some works might be done by an independent contractor or include copyrighted material, so always check the copyright information carefully)
  • works whose creators have chosen to place them in the public domain

Works in the public domain can be used freely.


The following works are all protected by copyright law:

  • A poster created for a conference in 2006
  • A presentation at a conference last month
  • An image created for a textbook in 1990
  • A paper written for a Fall 2005 class and never published

However, the following works are not protected by copyright law:

  • An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1902
  • An article from Emerging Infectious Diseases (a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published in 1996