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Copyright Resources: Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics

Most Works are Protected by Copyright
Almost all creative and intellectual work is protected by copyright.  Remember that facts are not subject to copyright.

Copyright is Automatic
Works do not have to have copyright notice posted or be registered in any way in order to be protected by copyright. This means that everything from a novel to a napkin doodle has full and automatic copyright protections.

Copyright Lasts a Long Time...
Works are protected for the life of the author, plus seventy years. If a work was “made for hire [pdf]” it is protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the creation of the work (whichever is less). The rules are different for works made before 1978 and incredibly complicated. FOr more information, view the Copyright Advisory Network.

...but not Forever
Works with expired copyright pass into the public domain and are available to be used in whatever way you’d like. Also not protected by copyright are works created by the US government (and some states), facts, ideas, and methods.

What Copyright Does and Doesn't Protect

The rights of copyright 

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Image credit:

Copyright is seen as a bundle of rights. These include the right to:

  • Make copies of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work (by selling, renting, lending, or giving it away)
  • Perform or display the work publicly
  • Make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations

Because these rights are imagined as a bundle, the owner of the copyright can give away, sell, or otherwise license some or all of these rights to others (For instance, when an author negotiates a contract - they may give the publisher the right to copy and distribute the work but not make future derivative works).

What copyright protects

Copyright only applies to the following kinds of works:

  • literary works
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

This list encompasses most kinds of creative or intellectual expression. Works must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression". Unfixed works like improvised music, speeches, or dances are not protected by copyright.

Remember: copyright is not designed to reward hard work but, rather, to foster creativity. Works that took a lot of effort to put together but that don't contain original expression do not qualify for copyright protection.

What is NOT protected by copyright

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  • procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation (these are protected by patents)
  • ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • other unoriginal or unfixed works

This page has been adapted from Copyright Resources at Portland Community College

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Showing Movies

Students or student clubs often wonder, "is it okay to show a movie?" 

There are two primary contexts in which you could show a movie without public performance rights, which is basically the license that allows you to show a movie legally in public when you are not the copyright owner.

1) In your private home (as long as you're not opening it to the general public or charging admission).

2) In a classroom as part of a class. 

For virtually all other showings you will need to have public performance rights in order to show a movie.