When Does Copyright Apply?
What works are protected?
Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. Copyrightable works include the following categories:
- literary works;
- musical works, including any accompanying words
- dramatic works, including any accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- sound recordings
- 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.”
When does copyright expire?
Although the duration of copyright protection varies depending upon the type of work and when it was created, no copyright protection lasts forever. Once it expires, it enters the public domain and can be used by anyone without permission. These resources will help you determine if material you wish to use is in the public domain:
- How Long does Copyright Protection Last?
The U.S. Copyright Office spells out the rules.
- Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States
Cornell University provides a handy quick-reference chart, including a printable PDF version.
What is NOT protected?
When does copyright protection not apply to a piece of intellectual property? Aside from having an expired copyright (see above), there are two general cases:
1. Categories of works that are ineligible for protection.
Certain categories of material are not eligible for federal copyright protection. According to the Copyright Office, these include:
- Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
- Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
- Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
- Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)
2. Works created entirely by the U.S. government.
Works created by the U.S. government are not eligible for U.S. copyright protection. This applies only to works entirely prepared by an officer or employee of the government, however. Works created by government contractors or grant recipients still receive copyright protection.