Copyright Basics

Copyright law protects works of “intellectual property” — which are creative expressions of ideas in fixed symbolic form. Books, movies, music, paintings, photographs, websites, images, videogames, performances, architecture, and software are among the many types of creative work protected by copyright.

Understanding the basics about how copyright works and about some of the exceptions to those rights will help you ensure that your creations are used in the way you choose and that you respect others’ rights to control how their creations are used.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection automatically provided to creative works such as books, music, or art.

Copyright law is intended to encourage people to create new works. By limiting how others can use a newly-created work for some period of time, copyright law gives creators more control over the use of their works and increases their potential for compensation.

According to the law, only the person who controls the copyright (originally the creator) is allowed to:

  • reproduce the work
  • distribute copies of the work to the public
  • perform or display the work publicly
  • create derivative works; in other words, to create new works based closely on the original (such as a translation of a book from one language into another, or making a book into a movie)

The creator of a copyrighted work can give others permission to do these things with the work and can completely transfer these rights to someone else in a way that gives up these rights for themselves. For example, a book author will often transfer their copyrights to a publisher in exchange for money related to the sales of the book. After that transfer, authors can no longer give permission to anyone else to do these things and needs permission from the publisher to do these things themselves.

The creator, or person the creator transfers their rights to, is said to “control copyright” in the work and sometimes described as the copyright owner.

When someone other than the copyright owner uses the work in one of these protected ways without permission (or other justification under copyright law), it is called copyright infringement.

What can be copyrighted?

Copyright law protects creative works “fixed in any tangible medium of expression”, such as books, movies, musical scores or recordings, paintings, photographs, websites, video games, performances, architecture, and software.

The complete description of what is protected by copyright is provided in Section 102 of the Copyright Law.

What can not be copyrighted?

Copyright law does not protect facts or ideas, just the creative choices involved in communicating them. In other words, copyright protects the expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity could not be copyrighted, but the article he published to explain the theory could be.

The following do not qualify for copyright protection:


Facts are not protected under copyright law because copyright only applies to “original works of authorship.” Although the level of creativity required to be “original” is extremely low, facts do not have the requisite level of creativity. For example, baseball scores, telephone numbers, dates of birth, and the number of people at a protest are facts and not protected by copyright.At the same time, there may be situations in which a compilation of facts may be protected if the creator selected, coordinated, or arranged the facts in an original way. For example, a cookbook may arrange ingredients in a creative and original way as part of its recipe, in which case, the creator of the work would have a copyright in the creative arrangement of the recipe, but not the recipe itself.

Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression

Copyright protection only applies to “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Consequently, an improvisational speech that has not been notated or recorded is not protected by copyright, though a plan for the speech could be copyrightable.

Ideas, concepts, or principles

Copyright does not cover ideas, concepts, and principles themselves, only the form in which they are expressed. For instance, merely coming up with an idea does not make you the copyright owner because you haven’t actually expressed anything. You become the copyright owner only when you put that idea into “expression” through words (e.g., a blog post or article) or other tangible form (e.g., in a video, a photograph, or a podcast).

Words, phrases, or familiar symbols

In general, copyright does not protect individual words, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; or mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.

While copyright protection may not apply, be aware that trademark law protects certain words, short phrases, slogans, symbols, and designs. For example, trademark law protects the word “Apple,” the slogan “Got Milk?” and the Nike symbol of the “swoosh.” See the Digital Media Law Project resource on using trademark protected words, phrases, or symbols for more information.

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