What is Copyright?

Copyright is a constitutionally protected right that gives authors and artists — creators of original works — the legal right to exclude others from using their works. Copyright encourages creative efforts by giving creators of works the exclusive right to reproduce their work, prepare derivative works, distribute works, and derive income from them. Ideas, concepts, and facts are not eligible for copyright protection. Examples of eligible materials include:

  • a paper document;
  • an artist's painting;
  • a programmer's application code;
  • an architect's building plan; and
  • a spreadsheet stored on a floppy disk or hard drive.

What is Protected by Copyright?

Almost all works fixed in a tangible medium are covered by some form of copyright protection. This protection is automatic; when a covered work is created, it is protected from the date of creation until the copyright expires.

In most cases, to use works created by others, one must obtain permission from the legitimate copyright owner. There are exceptions:

  • works for which the copyright has expired, such as works that are in the public domain;
  • materials covered by the "fair use" doctrine; and
  • other exceptions defined by copyright statutes and related amendments.

While most works are covered by copyright law automatically upon creation, registration of the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office provides added protection for the owner's copyright. Statutory damages up to $150,000, as well as attorney fees, can be awarded if works are promptly registered. In the case of unpublished works, registration must occur before the unauthorized use. Published works should be registered within three months of publication