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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Copyright Fundamentals

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Copyright protects "original works of authorship" that are fixed in "a tangible form of expression." The fixed form does not have to be directly perceptible so long as it can be communicated with the aid of a machine or other device. Copyrightable works fall into the following categories:

- literary works (which includes computer software);

- musical works, including any accompanying words;

- dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

- pantomimes and choreographic works;

- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

- motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

- sound recordings; and

- architectural works.


Not everything is protected by copyright law. The following are categories of things not protected:

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, (but written or recorded descriptions, explanations, or illustrations of such things are protected copyright); Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; mere listings of ingredients or contents (but some titles and words might be protected under trademark law if their use is associated with a particular product or service);Works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as an improvised speech or performance that is not written down or otherwise recorded;Works consisting entirely of information that is commonly available and contains no originality (for example, standard calendars, standard measures and rulers, lists or tables compiled from public documents or other common sources); and Works by the US government.


The copyright in a work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created it at the moment it is put into fixed form. No one but the author can claim copyright to the work, unless the author grants rights to others in a written agreement (such as to the author's publisher or record company). Usually, you can tell who the author of a work is -- the person who created it. But sometimes, it is not quite that easy.

Works made for hire

Works made for hire (a work "made for hire” by an employee and certain kinds of commissioned works) are considered to be authored by the employer or the commissioning party. So if your boss asks you to write a report as part of your job, the company you work for gets all the copyright protection that would otherwise have been available to you.

Two or more authors

When two or more people create a work together, each of them is an author: they are called "joint authors" and the work is called a "joint work." Joint authors are co-owners of the copyright in the work, unless they agree otherwise. For instance is your class paints a big painting or mural together, each of the students who painted part of it is a joint author and a copyright owner.

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