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Copyright Basics

Definition of Copyright

"Copyright protects 'original works of authorship' that are fixed in a tangible form of expression [published or unpublished]" (United States Copyright Office, 2012).

The following are protected under U.S. Code, Title 17, Section 102:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words [lyrics]
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works [dance]
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures [films] and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Note: "These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most 'compilations' may be registered as 'literary works'; maps and architectural plans may be registered as 'pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works'" (United States Copyright Office, 2012).

United States Copyright Office. (2012). Copyright basics. Retrieved from


Who can claim copyright?

  • The author (individual) or co-authors (two or more)
  • Those deriving rights through / from the author such as publishers, record labels, the author's descendants, etc.
  • The author's employer, if the work is created as a "work for hire."

A "work for hire" includes work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned for use, such as:

  • an atlas
  • a test or answer material for a test
  • an instructional text
  • a compilation
  • a supplementary work
  • a translation
  • a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • a contribution to a collective work

Additional Notes:

  • Ownership of copyrighted material does not give the possessor copyright permission or rights.
  • Minors may claim copyright, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors.

U.S. Code, Title 17, Chapter One, Section 106: Exclusive Rights in Copyrighted Works

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:
(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

The First Sale Doctrine

The physical ownership of an item, such as a book or a CD, is not the same as owning the copyright to the work embodied in that item.

Under the first sale doctrine (section 109 of the Copyright Act), ownership of a physical copy of a copyright-protected work permits lending, reselling, disposing, etc. of the item, but it does not permit reproducing the material, publicly displaying or performing it, or otherwise engaging in any of the acts reserved for the copyright holder, because the transfer of the physical copy does not include transfer of the copyright rights to the work.

Copyright Clearance Center. (2016). About copyright. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from Copyright Clearance Center,

The First Sale Doctrine, as explained by Rich Stim, Attorney (Nolo Press)


Creative Commons License Unless otherwise noted, all content on the Copyright Information section of this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. 

General Resources on Copyright

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