Skip to Main Content

Copyright Basics: Overview

Copyright news

Copyright Guide

copyright symbolWelcome to the Aquinas College Guide to Copyright


Copyright law is complicated, and for good or for ill, increasingly important in scholarship and academia. Our hops is that this guide provides answers to frequently asked questions, helps authors learn to use and enforce their rights, and demystifies copyright law as much as possible.

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice.

Adpated from the University of Michigan Copyright Guide.

Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors, photographers, composers, and other creators to control some reproduction and distribution of their work. There are several different rights that make up copyright. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part
  • Prepare derivative works, such as adaptations, translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Publicly display the work
These rights have exceptions and limitations, including the "fair use" provisions, which allows certain uses without permission of the copyright holder.
A Public Domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and may be freely used by everyone. Examples of works in the public domain are works published before 1923 and U.S. Government documents. For more complete information on when works pass into the public domain see
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. Protection, given to individual, group or corporate authors and to "works for hire," lasts for the term of the author's life plus 70 years (PL 105-298).
Remember that “out-of-print” does not mean out of copyright.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literature, music, painting, photography, dance, and other forms of creative expression. In order to be protected by copyright, a work must be:
  • Original: A work must be created independently and not copied. 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.
  • Creative: There must be some minimal degree of creativity involved in making the work. 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.
  • A work of authorship: This includes literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works.
  • Fixed: The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" — written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape.

What isn't protected by copyright?

There are many things that are not protected by copyright, including:
  • Facts and ideas
  • Processes, methods, systems, and procedures
  • Titles
  • Blank forms
  • Words, names, slogans, or other short phrases also cannot be copyrighted. However, slogans, for example, can be protected by trademark law
  • Government works, which include: Judicial opinions, Public ordinances, Administrative rulings
  • Works created by federal government employees as part of their official responsibility.
  • Constitutions and laws of State governments
  • Materials that have passed into the public domain

How do works acquire copyright?

Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright. Today, formal procedures such as copyright notice, registration, or publication are not required to obtain copyright.
This means that almost everything is conceivably subject to copyright if its original. This includes not just published material, such as books and articles, but also your emails and letters, your assignments, your drafts, and your snapshots.
You do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, it's a very good idea to include a copyright notice, along with your contact information, so that people who want to re-use your work will be able to get in touch with you. A good copyright notice might look something like "© 2007 C. Holder. For permissions and questions contact"  Creative Commons licenses are also a good way to notify others of the uses you permit - and for you to know how other creators are willing to let you use their wor.

How long does copyright last?

Today, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication.  For many works, however, calculating duration of copyright can be very complex.  One useful reference is

Who is the owner of a copyrighted work?

The creator is usually the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. Note that this may differ from common academic conduct and expectations, where the lead author may be considered more important than the others - in the absence of something to the contrary in writing, all authors share copyright equally.  The lead author does not implicitly have a larger copyright interest than the other authors, even if there is a difference in the significance of status or contribution. 
If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work made for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. By tradition, faculty writings are not treated as "work made for hire."  In the case of work by independent contractors or freelancers, the copyright belongs to the contractor or freelancer unless otherwise negotiated beforehand, and agreed to in writing.

It is possible to transfer or assign copyright; this frequently happens as a part of publishing agreements. In many cases, the publisher holds the copyright to a work, and not the author. A valid copyright transfer requires a signed written agreement.  You can transfer or assign all of your copyrights or only certain parts.  For example, you could assign the right to distribute your book in the United States to one publisher and the right to distribute it in Europe and North Africa to another publisher.

How do I register my copyright?

You do not have to register your work to receive and retain copyright protection, but if you plan to publish, post, or otherwise distribute your work, it may be a good idea to do so since registration confers a number of legal benefits. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright. Registering is not difficult, and the fee is $35.00 if done electronically: for instructions and forms, visit the United States Copyright Office website. If you have any questions regarding copyright registration, the US Copyright Office has a toll-free help line at 1-877-476-0778.


The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice.