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An Introduction to Copyright

New to Copyright Law? Learn the basics here!

The information found in this guide is remixed from "Unit 2: Copyright Law" by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0

What is Copyright?

Intellectual Property umbrella includes trademark, patent, and copyright lawCopyright law protects original literary and artistic works. It establishes a term of use and grants exclusive (mainly economic) rights limiting how an original creation can be copied, performed, communicated, adapted, or translated. For example, copyright law dictates the protections you receive if you want to share a poem you’ve written. Copyright laws vary by nation.

Copyright law lives under the umbrella of intellectual property along with trademark and patent law. While copyright law deals with artistic and literary works, trademark law regulates the content created by companies to communicate their goods and services and patent law protects inventors and their inventions.

There are two common rationales used as the foundation and justification of copyright laws. The utilitarian rationale favors how copyright law offers an incentive for creators to create new works, ultimately benefitting society. The author’s rights rationale highlights the importance of recognizing and connecting a creator with its creation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright Law

How do I know if my work is protected under United States Copyright Law?

Copyright law doesn’t protect facts or ideas, it protects original, tangible expressions of these things. To be protected by copyright law your work must be considered literary or artistic in nature. This includes original works that are:

  • Literary, including translations, adaptations, arrangements, and collections
  • Musical
  • Artistic, including visual art
  • Dramatic
  • Cinematographic
  • Computer software or databases

How can I copyright my work?

Copyright is automatic after your work is placed in a fixed, tangible form. Although not necessary for copyright to be granted, you can register your work at for a fee.

Is there ever a time I can use a work under copyright without receiving permission from the copyright owner?

Yes, United States copyright law does grant some authorized uses, notably fair use doctrine and the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002.

Whether or not a use is considered fair use is decided by a federal judge who must consider:

  1. the purpose and character of the use of the work
  2. the nature of the work being used
  3. the amount of the work used
  4. the effect of the use on the economic and market value of the work

Exceptions are also granted when the use is for criticism or parody or when the work needs to be made accessible to the visually impaired.

What about the Public Domain?

An essential aspect of copyright law is eventually all works leave copyright to enter the public domain. These works no longer provide exclusive economic protection to their creators and can be used by anyone for nearly any purpose.

Works enter the public domain when they meet at least one of these four conditions:

  1. When copyright expires. In the United States, copyright law protects works for the life of the creator plus 70 years.
  2. If they aren’t literary or artistic or otherwise never qualified for copyright protections. This includes laws, facts, and unexpressed ideas.
  3. The creator designates their work to the public domain. A creator can do this using the Creative Commons Zero license.
  4. The copyright holder (creator or otherwise) didn’t acquire or maintain copyright protections.

Interested in browsing for works in the public domain? There are many online hosts including Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, the Wikimedia Commons and the Digital Public Library of America to name a few.