VCU Libraries provides faculty, researchers, and students with informative resources that can help guide them in the responsible use of copyrighted works and encourage them to exercise their fair use rights. VCU Libraries makes every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but does not offer it as counsel or legal advice. For legal advice, please consult the Office of University Counsel.
Copyright is a form of legal protection granted to authors that gives them exclusive rights to their "original works of authorship" (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 102).
United States copyright law has its foundation in Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, where Congress was granted the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Current US copyright law was established by the Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) and has been updated numerous times since then.
Under US copyright law, authors are granted six exclusive rights:
Those who want to use a copyrighted work in one of the ways listed above will need the permission of the author, unless their use falls under one of the exceptions to copyright law. Otherwise they are infringing upon the rights of the author and may be subject to legal action. Authors can also choose to transfer some or all of their rights to others, temporarily or permanently, through the use of a license.
The following categories of works are eligible for copyright protection:
To receive copyright protection, a work has to be an original and fixed expression.
What does this mean? First, a work must be original, meaning that it originated from the author's mind. It is not necessary for the work to be so unique that nothing like it has ever been created before, but it must be independently created by the author and not copied from another work. Although two works may happen to bear a strong resemblance to one another, they can both be eligible for copyright protection as long as neither was copied from the other. Furthermore, only a minimal amount of creativity is required for a work to be considered original.
Second, a work has to be fixed in some tangible medium so that it can be perceived, copied, or communicated in some other way. A work could be fixed by being written on paper, painted on a canvas, recorded on film, stored as computer code, or a number of other ways.
Finally, copyright protects expression, not the ideas or facts that are being expressed. Authors can freely borrow ideas or facts from other works, but they cannot copy the exact expression of the original author.
The following are not eligible for copyright protection and can therefore be borrowed by authors without permission or payment:
The public domain is made up of all works that are not eligible for copyright protection, which includes most works created by the United States government, as well as works that no longer have copyright protection. All works in the public domain are free to be copied and used without restriction. Works published in the United States prior to 1928 are in the public domain.
Copyright does not last forever, but determining when a work's copyright expires can be difficult. The basic term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years. The rules for works created before 1978 (when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect), works created by corporations, and foreign works are more complicated. See this chart on copyright length from Cornell to help you identify if a work is copyrighted and how long its copyright protection will last.
The creator of a work is most often also the sole copyright holder. However, there are situations where the creator may not be the copyright holder, or where there are multiple authors and therefore multiple copyright holders.
A work for hire is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment. Although the employee created the work, the employer is considered the author of the work and the copyright holder.
However, VCU's Intellectual Property policy explicitly grants certain copyrights to authors: “University Members shall retain all rights relating to publication, preparation of derivative works, distribution, and classroom use of works which they have prepared on their own initiative, including both papers published in scholarly journals or books, theses, and dissertations, provided the University does not possess rights of ownership as described below.” Exceptions to this include works where the author created the work as an assigned duty or when the author makes significant use of university resources in the work's creation. See the full policy for more detail.
Note that under the policy, students retain all copyrights in their works. Faculty do not have ownership over student work and must request permission before making any uses that are beyond traditional curricular uses.
Joint authorship occurs when a work is prepared by two or more individuals with the intention that their separate contributions be merged into a single work. Unless there is an agreement stating otherwise, joint authors own the work jointly and equally. Each author can, without the consent of other authors:
However, joint authors cannot grant exclusive rights to a third party, and each joint author has a duty to account to the other authors for any profits received from licensing or selling the joint work.
As soon as you have fixed your original expression, it receives copyright protection. You do not have to register your work or place a copyright symbol or notice on it, and it does not matter if your work is published or unpublished. However, placing a copyright symbol or notice on your work can help others recognize that the work is copyrighted and help them identify you as the copyright holder in case they want to request permission to use your work. A copyright notice (such as Ⓒ 2016 Jane Doe) informs the public that a work is protected by copyright, shows the year of first publication, and identifies the copyright owner. In addition, registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office creates a public record of your copyright claim and provides additional legal benefits in case you should need to take legal action to protect your work