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Copyright Question Framework

A step-by-step approach to analyzing most copyright questions

How does Copyright work?

How Copyright is Obtained

Creators today don't have to do anything to get a copyright; a work that qualifies is automatically fully protected by copyright from the moment it is first "fixed" (meaning, saved in some format, ike a drawing on a chalkboard or whiteboard, or a file saved in a computer's memory). Publication is not a requirement for copyright protection, and even formal registration is purely optional. There is also no requirement to include a copyright notice, date, the "circled c" © symbol, or any other information on the work in order to own a copyright.

The Types of Work Copyright Protects

Copyright protects original creative expression. Including:

  • literary works (almost all text-based media, including computer code)
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What Copyright Doesn't Protect

Copyright does not apply to: U.S. Copyright Code, 17 U.S.C. § 102(b)

  • procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation
    These qualify for protection and ownership under patent law, and patent and copyright do not usually overlap.
  • ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries
    Broadly speaking, these are not ownable under any form of U.S. intellectual property law. This reflects important values about intellectual freedom and encouraging innovation.
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents
    These are considered to fail the requirement of originality.
  • other unoriginal or unfixed works

How does the Public Domain work?

What the Public Domain is

The public domain is the collection of all expressive works for which no one owns the copyright.

Typically, work enters the public domain in one of two ways:

  • The Copyright term ends
    In the U.S., works published in the country before 1923 are definitely in the public domain. For works published in other countries or published after 1923, the Copyright Slider can help you figure out copyright status details.
  • Copyright never existed
    All works created by the U.S. federal government (and federal employees in the course of their work) are in the public domain in the U.S. from the moment of their creation - there is no copyright, in the U.S., in U.S. federal government works.