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Course & Subject Guides

Copyright Basics

This guide will give you an overview of copyright in the United States. It will not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of the Office of University Counsel.

How does a work get copyrighted?

Copyright applies automatically to any original work (must be created by the author rather than copied) that has a minimal degree of creativity.  It must also be "fixed in [a] tangible medium, of expression" meaning that it must in some sense be recorded and perceivable, such as on paper, in a computer file, or on a DVD.

There are eight categories of works protected under copyright law:

  • 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, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds 
  • Architectural works

These categories should be viewed broadly and not as a definitive list. For example, computer programs can be registered as literary works, while maps can be registered as pictorial or graphical works.

Some things cannot be copyrighted: 

  • Facts or ideas
  • Titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • Procedures, methods, systems or processes
  • Works of the United States government
  • Works that have passed into the public domain