Copyright Basics
Frequently Asked Questions

What is a copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, US Code) to authors of "original works of authorship" that are "fixed in a tangible form of expression."

What types of works are protected by copyright?

The range is very broad. Examples include:

  • literary works
  • musical works (and accompanying lyrics)
  • dramatic works (and accompanying music)
  • dances, pantomimes and other choreographic works
  • sculptures, paintings and other graphical works
  • movies and other audio/visual works
  • architectural works and
  • sound recordings

Copyright protection applies to both published and unpublished works.

It does not apply to ideas or facts upon which the expression is based.
For instance, a love song may be protected by copyright, but not the idea of 2 people in love. A fact may have been unearthed after years of research by a historian, but such information is free for anyone to use, even after it is published in the historian's book.

What rights do I have with a copyright?

Copyright owners have the exclusive right to:

  • Copy the work
  • Make derivative works based on the original work
  • Sell, rent, lease or lend copies of the work to the public
  • Perform or display the work publicly; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission.

Copyright owners also have the right to authorize others to do the same as above.

Who can claim a copyright?

The copyright is the property of the author who created the work.

In the case of a work for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.

A work for hire is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of her/his employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned.

How long does a copyright last?

  • For works published after 1977, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For works for hire, copyright protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.
  • Works published after 1922 but before 1978 are protected 95 years from the date of publication. But works that were created but not published before 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • If the author died more than 70 years ago and the work was never published, copyright protection terminated on December 31, 2002.
  • If the author died more than 70 years ago and a previously unpublished work was published before December 31, 2002, copyright protection will last until December 31, 2047.

All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.


A phonorecord is the physical object in which works of authorship, including sound recordings, are embodied. Examples include cassette tapes, cds, LPs, 45 rpm disks and other formats.

Publication is the distribution or offering of copies or phonorecords to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending. Offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of people for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work or delivery of a work to the US Copyright Office does not of itself constitute publication.

Sound recordings are defined in copyright law as works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the soundtrack of a movie or other audio/visual work. Examples include recordings of music, drama or lecture.

These answers were compiled from the excellent publication Copyright Basics published by the U.S. Copyright office.