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Copyright: A Guide

The purpose of copyright

Copyright appears as one of the basic tenets of the United States Constitution. Its purpose is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors ... the exclusive Right to their respective Writings...." This law written into the Constitution makes it possible for authors to reap the profits from their creative works. That potential to reap profits is intended as an incentive to authors to create more works for public benefit.

"Constitution in the National Archives" by Mr.TinDC is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Copyright: A bundle of exclusive rights


"Female sound engineer composing music" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The copyright holder (usually the author) possesses these exclusive rights over her work:

  • Reproduce (make copies of ) the work; and
  • Modify or prepare derivative works based on the work. (Examples of derivative works include translations, transforming printed works into musicals or films, rearrangements of scores, and any other recast, transformation or adaptation of a work); and
  • Distribute the work in any format by sale, publication, license, rental, or for free; and
  • Publicly perform or display the work; and
  • Authorize others to exercise some or all of those rights



Copyright duration

In general, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work with multiple authors, the term lasts for seventy years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. For a chart detailing these and many other copyright terms, visit Cornell University Library's Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Originality and fixation: conditions of copyright

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. An original work of authorship is a work that is independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work is “fixed” when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed.

Assaajuq regarde dans l’objectif d’une caméra..." by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What types of works are protected by copyright?


Copyright protects original expression as conveyed in several types of works. Here are some of the types of works that are protected:

  • Literary works
  • 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
  • Architectural works


What is not protected by copyright?

Copyright does not protect

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Most U.S. government works
  • Works in the public domain


This guide is intended to provide basic information about copyright for faculty, staff, and students at Muhlenberg College. The information should in no way be considered legal advice.