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What is Copyright?

Copyright is a federal law (Title 17 U.S. Code) that grants the creator(s) of "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" the exclusive legal rights to:

  • Reproduce the work;
  • Distribute the work;
  • Prepare derivative works (e.g., translations);
  • Perform the work publicly;
  • Display the work publicly; and
  • Authorize others to do any of these things.

All of these rights are alienable, divisible, and can be granted to others by the copyright holder(s) through exclusive and non-exclusive licenses.

Using a copyrighted work requires permission from the copyright holder(s) or support in favor of fair use. Unauthorized use is considered copyright infringement and could result in legal action and hefty fines.

What is Protected by Copyright?

Copyright protects all published and unpublished "original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression", including:

  • Literary works;
  • Dramatic works;
  • Musical works;
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • Pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and other artistic works;
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • Sound recordings;
  • Architectural works; and
  • Software.

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright is automatically applied the instant the original work is produced in a fixed format. The work does not need to display a copyright notice or have its copyright registered.

What is Not Protected by Copyright?

Copyright does not protect:

  • Works no fixed in a tangible form of expression (e.g., improvised works);
  • Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, and familiar symbols and designs;
  • Ideas, concepts, principles, discoveries, and data;
  • Lists of ingredients, instructional steps, procedures, methods, systems, and processes;
  • Works composed of common knowledge with no original authorship (e.g., calendars); and
  • Works of the U.S. Government.

Copyright Duration

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Copyright protection is not indefinite and does expire; however, the rules for how long a work can be protected are complex. Generally, works created in the United States are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works considered "works made for hire", copyright protection lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation of the work, whichever comes first.

Works with expired copyrights lose copyright protection and considered in the public domain.

Additional Resources:

Obtaining Permission

How Do You Obtain Permission to Use Copyrighted Works?

In order to use a copyright protected work, you need to attain permission from the copyright holder(s). This process generally involves determining the copyright holder(s), contacting the copyright holder(s), and receiving explicit written permission to use the work.

There are some exceptions that do not require permission to be attained. See Public Domain and Fair Use.

Additional Resources:


The information presented in this guide is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions, please contact the DCCCD General Counsel.

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