Copyright basics

Copyright is the exclusive right granted by U.S. law to copy, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivatives of original works of authorship. 

In the United States, copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”  A work in fixed form does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or marked with the symbol © or the word “Copyright” to be copyright protected.

Copyright protects literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works, as well as sound recordings and software.  Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods, concepts, principles, or discoveries, “regardless of the form in which these are described, explained, illustrated, or embodied” in a copyrighted work (U.S.C. 17 §102).

Under U.S. Copyright Law, the author of an original work in fixed form owns the copyright to the work unless the author was hired to create the work, in which case copyright is owned by the employer.  The Intellectual Property Policy of Carnegie Mellon University explains who owns the intellectual property created by faculty, students, and staff in their relationship with Carnegie Mellon.

Copyright owners have the exclusive rights to copy and distribute their work, to perform or display it publicly, and to make derivative works (U.S.C. 17 §106).  If someone else wants to use the work, the copyright owner’s permission is required unless the use is granted by a licensing agreement or an exception or limitation in the Copyright Act.  Exceptions and limitations are addressed in the Fair Use Policy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Copyright owners can legally transfer their exclusive rights, individually or grouped, to someone else.  The transfer can be exclusive or non-exclusive.   After exclusive transfer of a right, the author no longer retains that right and cannot transfer or license that right to others.  After a non-exclusive transfer, the author still retains the transferred right and can transfer or license that right to others.  Carnegie Mellon encourages authors to be wary of exclusive transfer of their copyrights, particularly to commercial publishers.  

Copyright owners can also license use of their work without transferring copyright.  Licenses specify Terms of Use, what users may do with a work without requesting the copyright owner’s written permission.  For years, licenses have been attached to material available commercially, for example, the contents of a database, a musical CD, a movie on DVD, or a software application.  More recently, open licenses have been developed and attached to material that is freely available (open access) on the Internet.  Open licenses encourage use of open content by removing one or more copyright restrictions while retaining other copyright protections, for example, allowing users to copy and distribute the work, but prohibiting commercial use or the making of derivative works.

U.S. copyright law specifies many limitations and exceptions to the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, most notably fair use.  If the right to use someone else’s copyrighted work in a particular way is not granted by copyright law or a licensing agreement, you must acquire written permission for the use, either through a licensing agency or directly from the copyright owner.  Alternatively you could find another work to use, for example, a work in the public domain (copyright expired).  See Using other people’s copyrighted work.