Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Copyright defines who owns the work. Work must be original and creative to be copyrightable.

Until 1976, creative works were not protected by U.S. copyright law unless their authors took the trouble to publish a copyright notice along with them. With the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright is secured automatically when the work is created, and a work is “created” when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.

1) literary works
2) musical works, including any accompanying words
3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music
4) pantomimes and choreographic works
5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works
7) sound recordings
8) architectural works

These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most “compilations” may be registered as “literary works;” maps and architectural plans may be registered as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”

A work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life, plus an additional 50 years after the author’s death. For works made for hire and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright is 75 years from publication or 100 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “ fair use.” The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years. The various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair could include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Copyright protects the particular way an author has expressed himself. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in the work. The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.

Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation that offers ways to grant copyright permissions for creative work that make it easier for people to share or build upon the work of others. The Creative Commons licenses enable people to easily change their copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright, offering a means to modify standard copyright terms. Creative Commons offers a spectrum of possibilities between full copyright and the public domain.

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