Portland State University Copyright Guide: Copyright Basics

Copyright is Established in the U.S. Constitution

The Congress shall have Power To ...    promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8.

What is Copyright?

What is copyright?cover US. Copyright Act

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, US 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 This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.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 is the right of an author, artist, composer or other creator to control the use of his or her work by others.

For a work to be protected by copyright law, it must be an idea that has been expressed and fixed in some sort of medium. It must be:

  • Original: To qualify as original, the work must be created independently and must have “at least a modicum” of creativity.
  • A work of authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, as well as many other types of creative works.
  • Fixed: A work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" by or under the authorization of the author. Writing a work on paper or on a computer hard drive, recording a work on tape, and sculpting a work out of marble all satisfy this requirement. An unrecorded improvisation (e.g., in music or dance) would not satisfy this requirement.

What is not protected by copyright protect?

US copyright does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” It also does not protect works prepared by an officer or employee of the US Government as part of that person's official duties.

What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing?

Subject to certain limitations, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  •  reproduce the work by making copies of it;
  •   distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, donation, rental, or lending;
  •   prepare new works derived from the original (for example, a novel adapted into a play, or a translation, or a musical arrangement); and
  •  publicly perform or display the work.

Who owns the copyright?

As a general rule, the initial owner of the copyright is the person who does the creative work. 

Copyright can be sold or transferred if the original author so chooses. Generally copyright in work created by an employee acting within the scope of employment is owned by employer. In the case of a freelancers whose contract  specifies a “work made for hire”, the copyright holder is the person that contracted the works creation.

How does a work become copyrighted?

In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright.

When do copyrights expire, and how can I determine if an old work is still covered by copyright?

The basic term of protection for works created today is for the life of the author, plus seventy years. In the case of "works made for hire", copyright lasts for the lesser of either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation of the work. The duration rules for works created before 1978 are altogether different, and foreign works often receive distinctive treatment. Not only is the duration of copyright long but the rules are fantastically complicated.  The Duration of Copyright circular is available from the US Copyright Office.

(Content on this page has been adapted from http://ogc.harvard.edu/pages/copyright-and-fair-use, https://copyright.columbia.edu/basics/copyright-quick-guide.html, http://guides.lib.umich.edu/copyrightbasics/faq)

Additional Resources for Understanding Copyright

Copyright Metro. A very entertaining guide from Baruch College covering usage of copyrighted material in teaching. 


Elsa Loftis
(503) 725.5780