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Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

The U.S. Constitution granted to Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The copyright laws were enacted to govern the rights granted to authors to protect their writings and patent law was enacted to govern the rights granted to inventors to protect their discoveries. Over time, the copyright laws were expanded to protect music, sound recordings, pictures and other visual art, movies and other audiovisual works, dramatic and choreographed works, and computer software.

Copyright law protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be original and fixed in a tangible medium and be one of the following eight categories of works:

  • literary works, including computer software
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

The work need not be novel or useful, only original. In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Titles and short phrases are not eligible for copyright protection. If used in commerce, a descriptive title may be eligible for trademark protection.

The term "copyright" actually refers to a bundle of rights that allow the originator of the work the exclusive right to:

  • make copies of the work
  • make derivative works based on the original work
  • distribute the work
  • perform the work publicly
  • display the work in a commercial setting

In the case of visual works, the author also has the right to:

  • claim authorship of the work (attribution)
  • prevent others from attributing distorted works to original author (integrity)

Together, these rights give the copyright owner the exclusive ability to profit from their efforts.

How do I obtain a copyright on a work?

Copyright protection, unlike patent protection, is automatic. As soon as the work is fixed in a tangible form it is protected under copyright law. You do not have to place a copyright notice on a work for it to be protected, but this is a good idea because it tells others to whom the work belongs.

The author of the work is automatically the owner of all copyrights in the work unless the work was created in the context of the author's employment. If the work is employment related, the employer owns the work in accordance with the work-made-for-hire doctrine in U.S. Copyright Law. (Refer to the Copyrighted Works Created at UC for information on ownership of copyrights.)

What is a copyright notice?

All software, publications, multimedia and other copyrighted works developed on campus and belonging to the University should bear a clear, standard copyright notice imbedded in the title page or screen or other prominent location. Documentation accompanying software should also contain a copyright notice. Acknowledgment of creators may be included, if desired. A copyright notice must contain the word 'Copyright' or the symbol ©, the year in which the work was published, and the name of the copyright owner. The symbol (c) is often used on electronic works but it has not been accepted as a substitute for © or the word Copyright. The standard form for a copyright notice on works belonging to the University is:

Copyright © 1996(1) The Regents of the University of California
All Rights Reserved


Copyright © 1996(1) The Regents of the University of California
All Rights Reserved.

Created by John Smith and Mary Doe
Department of Statistics


(1)Insert the year the work was first published as well as any subsequent years when a modified version is published. Publication is defined in the Copyright Act as the distribution or offer of distribution of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. If the work has not been offered for sale or transfer, it is not published.

Since many keyboards cannot reproduce the © symbol, the symbol (c) may be used instead, although the latter symbol will not always be accepted as a substitute. Use of the symbol, ©, in combination with certain other requirements, allows copyright protection in some foreign countries. To ensure the enforceability of the copyright in the United States, the word, "Copyright" must always appear in the notice.

What is a registered copyright?

Copyright is granted automatically, but you must register the copyright with the Library of Congress to be able to sue if someone infringes your copyright. The registration process is inexpensive and may be done at any time up to 3 months after the infringement has occurred. If you register prior to infringement you are able to sue for additional damages and attorneys fees.

Should I register the copyright?

If someone uses your work without your permission, you may sue the user for infringement and seek damages. If you are distributing your work without fee, unfortunately, there will be no damages if someone should infringe your work. A lawsuit will cost approximately $150,000 and it is not a realistic recourse unless there is significant commercial value in the program. For this reason, the University does not register the copyrights on works that are to be distributed without fee. In cases where the work is to be licensed for a fee and has commercial value, it is a good idea to register the copyright.

The registration process is simple. The current filing fee is $30. Forms are available from your campus copyright contact or:

Register of Copyrights
Copyright Office
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C. 20559

How long does copyright last?

For works created after 1978, copyright generally lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works for hire (those works owned by your employer), anonymous or pseudonymous works, copyright generally lasts for 95 years from the date the work was published, or 120 years from creation of an unpublished work, whichever is shorter. There are exceptions, but this is the general term.

What is the Public Domain?

Works that are not copyrighted are considered to be in the public domain and anyone may freely use such works for any purpose. This is a widely misunderstood term and in fact, very few works created after 1978 are public domain.

In the past, works without a copyright notice were considered to be in the public domain. This is no longer true. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 provides that copyright protection accrues automatically when a work is first created and notices are no longer mandatory.

The term public domain is often misused when talking about works that are publicly available, such as software, text and graphics distributed electronically. These works are generally not considered to be public domain works and require that you obtain permission from the copyright owner to use them. Many works are distributed with certain permissions expressly granted, and if so, you may use the work only for the purposes stated. If you wish to use the work for any other purpose, you require prior permission fromthe copyright owner.

Many works may not contain a copyright notice or any information on the copyright owner. Even so, if these works were created after 1978, they are not public domain. Email, postings to USENET newsgroups and electronic mailing lists, and software retrieved at ftp sites should all be considered copyrighted works of the author.

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