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Copyright: Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office,

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What this means is that the U.S. government recognizes that content creators (writers, artists, musicians, et cetera) retain ownership of their creations, even if the works are unpublished or not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Using, duplicating, displaying, or sharing a work without adequate permission from the creator or publisher for a purpose that does not fall under "Fair Use" may be a violation of copyright law, subjecting you or your institution to potential legal consequences.

Copyright holders are the exclusive bearers of certain rights pertaining to their work:

  • the right to reproduce the work
  • the right to distribute the work
  • the right to create adaptations ("derivatives") of the work
  • the right to perform and/or display the work

Which types of original works are protected by Copyright law?

According to 17 U.S.C. § 102, works of authorship fall into the following categories:

These are works that are primarily text-based, and the term "literary" is very broadit doesn't apply only to things you would read curled up under a blanket next to the fireplace. Here are some examples:

  • fiction and non-fiction
  • manuscripts
  • poetry and lyrics
  • academic writing (dissertations, theses, et cetera)
  • programming code
  • games

Musical works are original compositions and arrangements. There are some important distinctions to make here: copyright for the composition of a work, a recording of a work, and a published score of a work are all different. Those fuzzier details become important when you're looking at various orchestras' recordings of a public domain symphony or a contemporary band's cover of a pop song or folk tune.

Here are some examples of musical works protected by copyright:

  • symphonies and other multi-movement works
  • printed music
  • anthems and other standalone compositions
  • choral works that use public domain text or poetry written by others
  • that thing you made in FL Studio and uploaded to Soundcloud

Dramatic works are staged works. There tends to be a lot of overlap with other categories here; music and choreography are often associated with dramatic works, but are not required. What is required of a dramatic work to be copyrighted is a physical script or physical recording of the work. Examples of dramatic works include:

  • stage plays
  • operas
  • musicals
  • ballets
  • rehearsed acts

Choreographic works involve routine movement, dance, and/or pantomiming (non-verbal expression through gesture). There is usually considerable overlap with literary, dramatic, and musical works. Like with dramatic works, there must be a "tangible" form of the work, which may include notated scripting or recordings.

Congress does not define choreographic works outright, but possible examples of choreographic works could include:

  • original dance routines (rarely individual steps or "moves")
  • recorded interpretive dance
  • marching band drill

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "pictoral, graphic, and sculptural works" include all two- and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art. "Art" here doesn't mean something you'd necessarily see in a museum; it applies to just about anything you can see that a person made and put some amount of effort into (even if it was very little effort).

Examples of a few types of visual art include:

  • advertisements
  • comics
  • diagrams and blueprints
  • digital artwork
  • maps
  • patterns
  • prints
  • photographs
  • sculpture

Sound recording copyrights are different from musical composition copyrights. For example, a record company may publish a recording of an orchestra performing a symphony that is in the public domain. Even though the musical work in question is public domain, the sound recording copyright is held by the record company. Thus, distributing or exhibiting the recording without permission is, indeed, a violation of copyright law.

Sound recordings aren't limited to music, either. A similar violation could involve the reproduction of an audiobook recording of a novel that is in the public domain.

Here are some examples of sound recordings:

  • audiobooks
  • podcasts
  • CDs and digital releases
  • a recorded recital or concert
  • natural sounds with heavy creative and productive elements
  • anything you hear on the radio


Architectural works are the newest category of protected works under U.S. copyright law. As such, only works designed on or after December 1, 1990 are eligible for protection. A "design" is defined as a tangible plan, drawing, model, or physically constructed building. A building's construction does not constitute a publication of the design unless multiple constructions of the design have been completed.

Structures other than buildings, such as bridges, are not eligible for copyright registration.

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