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Understanding Copyright: An Overview

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept that gives the creators of original works exclusive rights to their creations, granting them control over the use and distribution of those works. This protection is granted to various forms of creative expression, including literary, artistic, musical, and other intellectual works. Copyright applies to both published and unpublished works. The rights typically associated with copyright include the right to reproduce the work, distribute copies, publicly display or perform the work, and create derivative works based on the original. These rights aim to incentivize creative individuals by allowing them to control how their works are used and to benefit financially from their creations. Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of the work. Generally, it lasts for a limited time, after which the work enters the public domain, becoming freely available for the public to use. The duration of copyright protection can vary depending on factors such as the type of work, the jurisdiction, and when it was created. Copyright is an essential element of intellectual property law and is crucial in fostering creativity and innovation.

17 U.S.C. § 102

According to 17 U.S.C. § 102, copyrighted works include:

  • works of literature
  • musical works (with or without words)
  • dramatic works (with or without music)
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

17 U.S.C. § 106

According to 17 U.S.C. § 106, copyright owners have the exclusive right to:

  • To reproduce the work
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • To perform the work publicly
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission
  • In the case of a “work of visual art,” the author has certain rights of attribution and integrity

Copyright at SMC Libraries

Copyright Notice posted at each Copier at SMC Library:

Notice: The copyright law of the United States (Title 17 U.S. Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. The Institution in which this device is placed is not responsible for any copyright infringement as a result of a users actions. The person using this equipment is liable for any infringement.

Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act

In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the period of copyright protection for an additional 20 years. As part of the Act, Congress provided that during the last 20 years of any term of copyright of a published work, a library or archives may reproduce a copy of the work for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research provided that: the work was not being distributed commercially; the work cannot be obtained at a reasonable price; or the copyright owner or its agent provides notice that either of the above conditions applies.


Source: Library Photocopying - Stanford University Libraries

Original Works of Authorship

In the beginning, copyright law was intended to cover only books. In the 19th century, the law was expanded to include maps, charts, engravings, prints, musical compositions, dramatic works, photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Motion pictures, computer programs, sound recordings, dance, and architectural works became protected by copyright in the 20th century.

Copyright protection falls under title 17, U.S. Code, and covers "original works of authorship."

So what makes a work original?

  1. Fixity - not the idea but the fixed expression or the manifestation of the idea
  2. Originality
  3. Minimal creativity

Works Not Covered by Copyright

  1. Works whose copyright has expired
  2. Works created by federal government employees as part of their official duties
  3. Works explicitly donated to the public domain
  4. Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g., choreographic works without notation or recording, spontaneous speeches or performances without written or recorded documentation)
  5. Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols or designs, and simple variations of typographic elements, lettering, or coloring
  6. Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  7. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as opposed to descriptions, explanations, or illustrations
  8. Works composed entirely of common property information with no original authorship (e.g., standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables extracted from public documents or other widely available sources)