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Copyright & Digital Projects: Understand Copyright Basics

Creating and publishing a digital project? Discover a workflow for answering copyright and other law & policy-related digital publishing questions.

Understand Copyright Basics

⇒ Learn the Basics First 

  • For the Workflow to make sense, it may help to first understand what copyright is, and is not. 
  • At its core, holding copyright means having exclusive rights to make certain uses of your work for a limited period of time. These exclusive rights and time periods are intended as a reward system to encourage authors and artists to write and create things. But, the rights don't last indefinitely because perpetual protection would stymie creative progress and innovation by precluding re-use.
  • How did this reward system come about? A Constitutional grant of authority empowered Congress to create it. Congress accordingly enacted the Copyright Act, along with other copyright laws which appear in Title 17 of the U.S. Code. Below, we discuss what the Copyright Act provides for in terms of exclusive rights and time periods.

⇒ Exclusive Rights for a Limited Period of Time

  • What are the exclusive rights?
    • Title 17, Section 106 of the U.S. Code grants copyright owners six main groups of rights for the length of their copyright. You will sometimes hear these referred to as the "bundle" of rights that copyright creates, which includes the rights of: Reproduction; Preparation of derivative works (such as adaptations); Distribution; Public performance; Public display; Public performance of sound recordings via digital audio transmission.
  • What do exclusive rights mean in context? 
    • You're creating digital scholarship. As the author & copyright holder, you now have exclusive rights to reproduce copies of it, prepare journal article or book adaptations from it, distribute copies of it on the Web, read it aloud to a public paying audience (!!!), and even make posters of each page of text and display it if you wanted to.

    • The exclusive rights are not indefinite, however, because indefinite protection would quell the very progress that copyright law was meant to protect. So, copyright protection expires. The length of protection is determined by various factors. In general, however, you can expect that the length of copyright protection is at least the author's life + 70 years from the author's death.

  • What does the time limitation mean in context? 
    • Within the protected time period, you would need the author's permission to undertake any of the exclusive rights discussed above--i.e. to reproduce, display, perform, and create derivative works from the creation. 

    • So, you can begin to see that if you are writing scholarship that incorporates someone else's creation, you may need that author to grant you some form of permission since the author (or the author's estate) has exclusive reproduction rights until at least 70 years post-author's death.  


⇒ Other Prerequisites to Copyright

  • Copyright protects expression, not ideas or facts. 
    • Not everything that authors create is subject to protection under the Copyright Act, though. Copyright protects only expression, not ideas or facts. If you are creating scholarship and incorporating population statistics, you need to cite the statistics' source by professional standards, but you don't need to ask permission to use them because facts are not subject to copyright protection to begin with. Note the distinction between using the statistics vs. using the language with which an author describes them: The author can have copyright in his/her particular expression, but not the underlying facts, themselves.

    • Copyright Office circular offers additional examples and explanations of exclusions from copyright protection. Note that while someone can't hold copyright in short phrases and titles, or in ideas and methods, someone might be able to get trademark or patent protection, respectively.

  • The work must be authored, original, and fixed. 

⇒ You're the copyright holder

  • Lastly, before we turn to permission questions, it's important to know that once you create an original work of authorship that is fixed--like your Web project--copyright immediately attaches. You are the copyright owner, unless you entered into a funding or employment arrangement that vests copyright ownership in someone else. The UC page "What do I own" explains more.

  • Moreover, you do not need to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to hold copyright; copyright attaches automatically. There are certain benefits of registering your copyright, however, identified in Step 4's discussion of Copyright Registration

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