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Online Learning Guide

What is Copyright?

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. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8

Copyright law provides the creators of original works with exclusive rights of reproduction, adaptation, publication, performance, and display for a certain period of time. The goal of copyright law is to foster the creation of new works, the progress of scientific and cultural knowledge, and the spread of ideas. Recognizing that these exclusive rights can sometimes be counterproductive to the dissemination of knowledge, the law includes provisions for certain fair uses of copyrighted work, including for educational and research purposes, for parody and critique, and for news and commentary. The exclusivity of copyrights also expires after a period of time, ensuring that all ideas will eventually enter the public domain.

Copyright Basics

Copyright applies to nearly all representations of creative and intellectual works

Copyright law applies to nearly every form of creative representation, regardless of format, including:

  • Works of fiction
  • Works or non-fiction, including compilations of research results 
  • Music and sound recordings, including musical scores
  • Recorded performances, regardless of format
  • Scripts and interviews
  • Dramatic works, regardless of format
  • Works of art, including architectural works, sculptures, photographs, maps and digital images
  • Original works created or stored digitally, including emails, websites, blogs, and podcasts
  • Computer software and databases
  • Institutional and company reports

Basically if you can read it, watch it, or hear it, you can copyright it.

However, there are some important exceptions. Works created by government bodies or employees operating in an official capacity are not subject to copyright protections. Also free from copyright protection are short phrases, abbreviations, and common knowledge and facts.


Copyright applies automatically, regardless of whether notice is posted or not

Works are under copyright protection from the moment they are created, regardless of whether copyright is posted or not. This is especially relevant in the age of online, digital content creation and distribution. Though in the past it was required for creators to post notice and register their work in order to retain copyrights, this is no longer the case. Copyright owners may still post notice and register their copyright to gain additional protection. Alternatively, some creators choose not to retain their copyrights and instead encourage others to use and distribute their work through Creative Commons licensing.


Copyright law extends for many years

Article 1 of the constitution established copyrights to the author “for limited times,” in order “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Originally this term was for 14 years, but in the 20th century successive changes to the law extended the rights of copyright holders. Today the period is the life of the author plus 70 years for individual authorship and 120 years for corporate authorship. 


Copyrights are transferrable

The creator of a work, such as an author, a composer, or a painter, is generally the automatic copyright holder (except in cases of work-made-for-hire).   As stated above, the copyright holder has the right to share, distribute, edit, or repurpose their work. However, copyrights are legally transferrable.

In academic publishing it is very common for scholars to transfer their copyrights to the publisher during the publication process. Transferring copyrights can take away from scholars the right to post their work online, distribute it to students and colleagues, or repurpose an article for future use. It is important for authors to be aware of their copyrights and any agreement they sign in the publishing process. For more information, see the For Authors page.

Copyright Resources

Photo of open filing cabinet

filing cabinet. Source: flickr, breahn.