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Copyright Basics

Copyright protects authors of original works that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.  The scope of copyright is extremely broad, encompassing the virtually unlimited manners in which authors have captured their creative expression.  This page provides a basic overview of the protections that copyright provides to such works.

What is and is not protected?

Copyright protects original, creative works that have been fixed in some tangible form of expression.

Creative works may include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, choreographic works, motion pictures, sound recordings, architectural works, visual art, and computer programs.

In order to be protected, works must have some element of creativity. Blank forms or "common property" information sources such as calendars or phonebooks are not protected.

Symbols, slogans, inventions, and names are covered by other areas of intellectual property law such as patents and trademarks.

Works that are not protected by copyright or other laws are said to be in the public domain. Most works enter the public domain because their copyrights have expired, but you should assume a work is protected unless you can establish that it is not. For more information, see the Open Source/Open Access page.

What rights does copyright provide?

Copyright provides copyright holders with a set of exclusive rights, including the ability to:

  • reproduce (copy) the work
  • make derivative works (turn your book into a movie)
  • distribute, sell, rent, and/or lease copies of the work
  • perform or display the work publicly

Copyright holders may be someone other than the original author or creator. Some authors/creators transfer some or all of their copyright to other entities in exchange for having their work published, produced or distributed. Employers may also assert ownership of a work that is created by an employee during the course of his or her employment. UNM’s policy on copyright ownership for faculty, staff and student creators is found in the Faculty handbook, Policy E70. Certain types of works are considered "works for hire," owned not by the author but by the author's employer. See the Creating Copyrightable Works page for resources on retaining your rights.

When does a work become eligible for protection?

At one time, U.S. authors and creators were required to register and renew works with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to obtain rights. This is no longer the case. Current copyright law protects creative works automatically-- from the first time they are created and fixed in a tangible form, whether written on paper or saved on disk. No special symbols (such as ©) or other formalities are required. However, registration is still important: you must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before you are legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it, and registration creates a legal presumption that your copyright is valid, allowing you to recover statutory damages having to prove any actual monetary harm. See the Creating Copyrightable Works page for more information on registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

How long does copyright last?

The length of copyright protection in the United States has changed several times over the years. The original term of copyright protection was 14 years, with the option for an additional 14 year renewal. Today, a work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Corporate works are protected for 120 years after their creation or 95 years after their publication, whichever is shorter. This means the majority of U.S. works created in the 20th century are protected by copyright, even if they are no longer in print and no author or creator can be identified. See the Using Copyrighted Works page for more information on these cases involving "orphan works." 

What are the penalties for infringement?

U.S. law recognizes several types of activity that may result in liability for copyright infringement. Direct infringement involves cases where the defendant uses another's work without permission and without any exemption. Contributory infringement involves cases where the defendant did not directly violate copyright, but induced, caused, or materially assisted the infringer by providing services, equipment, or other resources to accomplish infringement. Vicarious infringement involves cases where the defendant had the "right and ability" to supervise the infringing action. This is generally used to hold employers responsible for actions of employees.

The law allows rights holders to recover actual and statutory damages for infringement. Remedies may include injunction (ordering the infringer to stop using a work), actual damages, or statutory damages. Statutory damages range from $750 to $30,000 per infringed work. However, this amount may be reduced to $200 if the infringer believed s/he was acting in good faith, or increased to as much as $150,000 for cases of willful infringement. If the work was registered before the infringement took place, attorney fees may also be recoverable.  In many cases this is the largest component of damages.

What about the idea of protecting public access to information and ideas?

In addition to the rights of authors to control how their work is used, the law also offers a variety of exemptions that permit others to use copyrighted work under certain circumstances. One of the most important exemptions is fair use, which permits the use of copyrighted materials for purposes including criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. See the Fair Use page for more information. Also, see the Open Source/Open Access page for works that may be shared, re-used, and remixed.

Additional Resources

The following resources provide more in-depth explanations of copyright law and are highly recommended.

  • Copyright Crash Course - An excellent resource maintained by the Office of General Counsel for the University of Texas system.
  • Copyright and Fair Use Overview - From Stanford University's Copyright and Fair Use site. The overview is provided by NOLO, a publisher with a reputation for clear information about legal issues.