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Basic overview of copyright issues

The Basics:

The Federal Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. sec. 107 et.seq.) enables authors to control the use of their works for a specified period of time. When that time period expires, the public may make use of the works without obtaining permission or paying royalties to the copyright holder.

Since March 1, 1989, the word "copyrighted" or the symbol for a copyrighted work is no longer needed. A work is protected as soon as it meets the following criteria: 1. It is an original work of authorship. 2. It is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

Copyrightable categories:
  • Literature, music drama
  • Choreography and pantomimes
  • Pictures, graphics and sculptures
  • Sound recordings and the performances/sound fixed in them
  • Motion pictures and other audio visual material
  • Computer programs
  • Architectural works
  • Compilations and derivative works
Exclusive rights of copyright holders:

These are separate rights - release or license of one or some does not limit the enforceability of the others.

  • Making copies
  • Creating derivative works
  • Distribution
  • Public performance
  • Public display
Categories of works that cannot be copyrighted, are in the public domain and free for anyone to use:
  • Works produced by the U.S. Government
  • Facts, news and research, although the organization and display format is subject to copyright
  • Titles, names, slogans, phrases (unless trademarked)
  • Ideas, methods
  • Procedures, systems and processes
  • Works published before 1923, if not modified and copyrighted since then


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Donald Altschiller
Mugar Memorial Library
Subjects: History, Religion