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Reference Guide: Copyright

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Copyright Tools

An Introduction to Copyright

What Is Copyright?

Simply put, "copyright is a legal device that provides the creator of a work of art or literature, or a work that conveys information or ideas, the right to control how the work is used" (Fishman, 2008, p. 6).The intent of copyright is to advance the progress of knowledge by giving an author of a work an economic incentive to create new works (Loren, 2000, para. 12).

What Can be Copyrighted?

Tangible, original expressions can be copyrighted. This means, for example, that a verbal presentation that is not recorded or written down cannot be copyrighted. However, anything that is tangible can be copyrighted. There are three fundamental requirements for something to be copyrighted, according to the United States Copyright Office (2008, p. 3):

  • Fixation:
    • The item must be fixed in some way. The manner of fixation may be just about anything. For example, fixation occurs if something is written on a piece of paper, posted online, or stored on a computer or phone, or on an audio or video device.
  • Originality:
    • The work must be original. Originality includes a novel or a student's e-mail message to a professor. Both are considered examples of original expression.
    • It is not necessary for the work to be completely original. Works may be combined, adapted, or transformed in new ways that would make them eligible for copyright protection.
  • Minimal Creativity:
    • The work must include something that is above and beyond the original. Verbatim use is not considered original. Reference to the original work that is used to discuss a new concept would be considered original, however.
    • Creativity need only be extremely slight for the work to be eligible for protection. The law merely states this is "original works of authorship" (United States Copyright Office, 2008, p. 3).

What Cannot be Copyrighted?

  • Works in the public domain:
    • Ideas are in the public domain.
    • Facts are in the public domain.
    • Words, names, slogans, or other short phrases also cannot be copyrighted. However, slogans, for example, can be protected by trademark law.
    • Blank forms.
    • Government works, which include:
      • Judicial opinions.
      • Public ordinances.
      • Administrative rulings.
    • Works created by federal government employees as part of their official responsibility.
    • Works for which copyright was not obtained or copyright has expired (U.S. Copyright Office, 2008, p. 3).

It is a common misperception that state employees and contractors performing work on behalf of the federal government cannot copyright their work. Unless it is explicitly stated in the contract between the government and a contractor, federal government contractors are permitted to copyright their works as can state employees (Commerce, Energy, NASA, Defense Information Managers Group, 2008, p. 19).

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright provides authors fairly substantial control over their work. The four basic protections are:

  • The right to make copies of the work.
  • The right to sell or otherwise distribute copies of the work.
  • The right to prepare new works based on the protected work.
  • The right to perform the protected work (such as a stage play or painting) in public (U.S. Copyright Office, 2008, p. 1).


Click here to see the NOTES (bibliography) for this copyright guide.

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