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Copyright: Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors, photographers, composers, and other creators to control some reproduction and distribution of their work. There are several different rights that make up copyright. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part
  • Prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Publicly display the work
These rights have exceptions and limitations, including the "fair use" provisions, which allows certain uses without permission of the copyright holder.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literature, music, painting, photography, dance, and other forms of creative expression. In order to be protected by copyright, a work must be:
  • Original: A work must be created independently and not copied.
  • Creative: There must be some minimal degree of creativity involved in making the work.
  • A work of authorship: This includes literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works.
  • Fixed: The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" — written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape.

What isn't protected by copyright?

There are many things that are not protected by copyright, including:
  • Facts and ideas
  • Processes, methods, systems, and procedures
  • Titles
  • All works prepared by the United States Government
  • Constitutions and laws of State governments
  • Materials that have passed into the public domain

How do works acquire copyright?

Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright. Today, formal procedures such as copyright notice, registration, or publication are not required to obtain copyright.
This means that almost everything is conceivably subject to copyright if it's original. This includes not just published material, such as books and articles, but also your emails and letters, your assignments, your drafts, and your snapshots.
You do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, it's a very good idea to include a copyright notice, along with your contact information, so that people who want to re-use your work will be able to get in touch with you. A good copyright notice might look something like "© 2007 C. Holder. For permissions and questions contact"  Creative Commons licenses are also a good way to notify others of the uses you permit - and for you to know how other creators are willing to let you use their work.

How long does copyright last?

Today, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication.  For many works, however, calculating duration of copyright can be very complex.  One useful reference is or contact us for additonal help.

Who is the owner of a copyrighted work?

The creator is usually the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. Note that this may differ from common academic conduct and expectations, where the lead author may be considered more important than the others - in the absence of something to the contrary in writing, all authors share copyright equally.  The lead author does not implicitly have a larger copyright interest than the other authors, even if there is a difference in the significance of status or contribution.  If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work made for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. At Oklahoma State University, faculty created educational material and writings are typically not treated as "work made for hire" according to OSU Policy 1-0201, Copyrightable Intellectual Property.  In the case of work by independent contractors or freelancers, the copyright belongs to the contractor or freelancer unless otherwise negotiated beforehand, and agreed to in writing. It is possible to transfer or assign copyright; this frequently happens as a part of publishing agreements. In many cases, the publisher holds the copyright to a work, and not the author. A valid copyright transfer requires a signed written agreement.  You can transfer or assign all of your copyrights or only certain parts.  For example, you could assign the right to distribute your book in the United States to one publisher and the right to distribute it in Europe and North Africa to another publisher.

Copyright Disclaimer

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. Legal questions involving Oklahoma State University should be directed to the Oklahoma A&M Office of Legal Counsel.