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Guide to Copyright

Videos & Tutorials on Copyright

Notes & Attributions

Content on this site adapted with permission from the Purdue University Office of Copyright.  

It is the responsibility of all members of the Purdue University Global community to make a good faith determination that their use of copyrighted materials complies with the United States Copyright Law and Purdue University Global's policies.  The purpose of this site is to educate the Purdue University Global community on copyright.  The information provided on this site should not be considered legal counsel or legal advice. 

Copyright Basics

Copyright is all about balancing the rights of authors with the rights of the public to use the work without seeking permission or paying royalties. Under copyright, authors have the right to control the use of their work subject to exceptions permitted under the law. If the use exceeds such exceptions, then infringing on someone's copyright can result in the infringer paying money damages (civil liability) and/or going to prison (criminal liability). To understand your rights and responsibilities under the copyright law, review the basics and the exceptions.

What is Copyright?

  • Copyright is a federal law. It is Title 17 of the United States Code.
  • Copyright is the right of authors to control the use of their work for a limited period of time.
  • A copyrighted work must be an original work of authorship which is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

Where did copyright law originate?

Copyright law originated with the United States Constitution. In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution states that "Congress shall have the power...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".

  • The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress is responsible for overseeing the administrative functions of the copyright law.
  • Congress enacts copyright laws.
  • The Federal courts interpret and enforce the copyright law.

Why is copyright law important?

Copyright law has a dual role. It provides exclusive rights to authors in order to protect their work for a limited period of time but it was also established to promote creativity and learning.

When does a work become copyrighted?

A work becomes copyrighted when it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. After March 1, 1989 works no longer require a copyright notice (© or the word copyright, the author´s name and the year of publication). Copyright registration is also no longer required. However, it is wise to affix a copyright notice to works so that the owner of the copyright can be easily identified.

What can be copyrighted?

Eight categories of works are copyrightable:

  • Literary, musical and dramatic works.
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works.
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.
  • Sound recordings.
  • Motion pictures and other AV works.
  • Computer programs.
  • Compilations of works and derivative works.
  • Architectural works.

What cannot be copyrighted?

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes are not copyrightable. Example: The list of ingredients for recipes are not copyrightable. However, the recipes' instructions are protected.
Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans are not copyrightable. Example:  Nike's slogan "Just do it" is not copyrightable. However, a slogan can receive trademark protection as is the case in the example.
Facts, news, and research are not copyrightable. Example:  A standard calendar.
Works in the public domain are not copyrightable.

Example 1:  Works created by United States government employees, where the works they created are a result of what they were hired to do. 

Example 2:  Work published in the United States prior to 1923.

Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

Example:  Extemporaneous speeches that are not written or recorded.


What are the copyright holder's exclusive rights?

The owner of a copyright has six exclusive rights:

  • To reproduce the work.
  • To distribute the work.
  • To create derivative works*.
  • To publicly perform* the work.
  • To publicly display* the work.
  • To publicly perform sound recordings by means of a digital audio transmission.

How long does copyright last?

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. If it is a corporate author then the protection is for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time.

For more information regarding the length of a copyright, please see the copyright duration chart from Cornell University.

Example: Author James Michener died in 1997. His works such as Alaska, Texas, and The Eagle and the Raven, which were all created after 1978, are protected under the copyright law until 2067.

Copyright Infringement Penalties

Copyright infringement is the act of violating any of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights granted by the federal Copyright Act.  There are three elements that must be in place in order for the infringement to occur.

  • The copyright holder must have a valid copyright.
  • The person who is allegedly infringing must have access to the copyrighted work.
  • The duplication of the copyrighted work must be outside the exceptions.

The legal penalties for copyright infringement are:

  • Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
  • The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
  • Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs.
  • The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
  • The Court can impound the illegal works.
  • The infringer can go to jail.