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Copyright is the legal guideline that is used to protect original, creative works from unauthorized use or duplication. The basic framework for copyrights is outlined in Title 17 of the United States Code. This includes the Copyright Act of 1976 and other relevant acts through 2016.  Works do not have to be formally published to be copyrighted. Copyright protects intellectual property once it has been documented in a tangible form or medium. This covers everything from paint and canvas, to documents, or handwritten notes.

Not everything is protected by copyright, however. Creators can choose to give up their copyright to other people or organizations or sometimes copyright can expire, putting their work in the public domain. Copyright law does not apply to facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. Copyright law is subject to judicial interpretation, so the adherence to and violation of copyright law can be difficult to determine. This library guide is not meant to be a replacement for legal guidance (U.S. Code, 2016).

For more Information visit the U.S. Copyright Office .

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What Copyright Protects

Copyright applies to a broad variety of creative works. To be protected by copyright, works must be contained in a distinct form that can be perceived or communicated with others directly or via a machine. The U.S. code outlines eight distinct categories that are protected by copyright.

  • Literary works
  • 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

Instances NOT Protected By Copyright

According to Title 17, Section 102, there are a few things that are not protected by copyright. These are not protected by copyright regardless of how they are later illustrated, embodied, or described. These instances include:

  • Ideas
  • Procedures
  • Processes
  • Systems
  • Methods of operation
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Discoveries

Example: A scientist uses several processes and methods which lead to the discovery of a new type of organism. The scientist doesn’t have a copyright to the methods or processes they used, nor do they have copyrights to the newly discovered organism.  However, if the scientist spends several years studying the organism and creates a book about it, the book would be protected by copyright.