Copyright Basics

What Is Copyright?

Copyright in the United States is a form of intellectual property law grounded in the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 8 states:

The Congress shall have the Power... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The purpose of copyright protection is to encourage the creation of intellectual and artistic works by giving authors exclusive rights to their works for a limited time. The United States Copyright law (Title 17 of U.S. Code) outlines the exclusive rights held by the copyright owner, which include the right to reproduce and distribute copies of the work, adapt or revise the work for any purpose, and publicly display or perform the work.

What Is and Is Not Covered?

In the U.S., copyright protection is afforded to both published and unpublished original works of authorship or creation. Facts, data, ideas, systems, or methods of operation are NOT covered by copyright. However, the arrangement or expression of these items may be protected by copyright.

What is the Duration of Copyright?

A work has copyright protection the moment it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  A work need not be officially published or registered to be protected by copyright.

Due to several key changes in U.S. copyright law over the past century, the formula for determining the expiration of a work’s copyright is rather complex and depends on a number of factors, including the date the work is created/published, whether the copyright was registered and renewed, the life span(s) and contributions of the author(s), and whether the work is anonymous or a work made for hire.  For more information, please see the Public Domain section.


Plagiarism is the use of another individual's thoughts, ideas, or copyright protected content without proper citation. This gives the impresssion that the material is original to the new work, and therefore written by that work's author, not the person who actually created the content. Plagiarism can apply to all types of content, including writings, tables, charts, graphics, concepts, theories, interpretations, observations, hypotheses, research findings, data, notes, study modules, and the organization or logic of another's argument.

To avoid plagiarism, include complete and accurate citations for borrowed ideas, paraphrased or summarized material, and facts from other sources.  Use citations AND quotation marks for direct quotations.


Please note that the information provided on this site is not intended to be legal advice.  You may wish to consult with your own legal counsel regarding your legal obligations.