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Research Guides
Western Carolina University

Copyright Resources

What is copyright?

Copyright law, as defined in Title 17 of the United States Code, protects "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" for a limited period. Copyright protection includes, for instance, the legal right to publish and sell literary, artistic, or musical work, and copyright protects authors, publishers and producers, and the public.  Copyright applies both to traditional media (books, records, etc.) and to digital media (electronic journals, web sites, etc.). 

Copyright is a bundle of rights that includes the exclusive rights to:

  1. reproduce or make copies of the original work,
  2. create derivative works based upon the original,
  3. distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership,
  4. perform the work publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures),
  5. display the work publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works and pantomimes), and
  6. perform the work publicly by way of digital audio transmission (applies to sound recordings).

Use of a copyrighted work by others during the term of the copyright requires either permission from the author or reliance on one of the copyright exceptions. Failure to do one or the other can expose the user to a claim of copyright infringement for which the law provides remedies including payment of damages to the copyright owner.

What types of work does copyright protect?

Copyright protects the following eight categories of works.

Literary works.
Musical works.
Dramatic works.
Pantomimes and choreographic works.
Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.
Films and other audiovisual works.
Sound recordings.
Architectural works.

There are certain types of works that do not qualify for copyright protection. These include, but are not limited to, facts, ideas, systems, methods of operation, names, short phrases, and works created by the United States federal government. Although works such as these do not qualify for protection under copyright, they may qualify for protection under other intellectual property laws such as patent or trademark. Circular 33, linked below, gives a nice overview of the works that are not eligible for copyright protection.

How long does copyright protection last?

The current copyright term for a work created in the United States is life of the author (or creator) plus 70 years. Because copyright terms have changed several times over the years, it can be difficult to know whether a work you want to use is still protected by copyright. It is best to proceed as though it is unless you have clear evidence that it is now in the public domain.

Below are some resources that can help you determine the copyright status of a work. If you have any questions or need help evaluating the copyright status of a work, contact Scottie Kapel, skapel@wcu.edu.