Network Literacy January 18, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF

Copyright is a form of intellectual-property protection that covers the works of writers, artists, and other creators. The idea originated with the Statute of Anne, a British law enacted in 1709. An international copyright agreement adopted in Switzerland in 1886 at the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was the first international copyright provision and still serves as the basic structure of copyright law for most nations.

The modern American law, the Copyright Law of 1976, protects as intellectual property the creations of writers, artists, graphic designers, composers and musicians. Under this law, a copyright is established as soon as one creates a work in a "fixed and tangible" form. A work doesn’t require formal registration or a copyright notice (unless the author needs to defend the copyright in court). Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Only the creator, or those to whom the creator has assigned rights, can legally claim copyright.

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following: 

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords.
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audio-visual works.
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audio-­visual work.
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Copyright Basics, U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress

Copyright actually encompasses a large body of rights, including various digital rights, which copyright holders can sell or assign separately, retaining ownership of all other rights to the work.

Length of term

With a few exceptions, all copyrights expire after a fixed term, at which time they enter what’s called the public domain, where they can be freely copied, adapted, performed, played, and distributed without penalty or royalty.

Under current law, an individual creator establishes rights that hold for 50 years after his or her death. Rights held by a corporation remain for 95 years after first publication.

Copyright doesn’t protect

  • Ideas
  • Procedures
  • Methods
  • Systems
  • Processes
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Discoveries
  • Devices
  • Titles
  • Names
  • Short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Lists of ingredients or contents
  • Works consisting entirely of common information that contain no original work

Indirect Infringement

You can indirectly infringe a copyright by:

  • Allowing third parties to post copyrighted materials to your site without permission from the copyright holder. Third parties include volunteers* who publish to your website
  • Passing along an email sent to you that contains illegally posted copyrighted material. Read all the way down before you respond to an email containing a long string of replies.
  • If you manage a blog, discussion group, or other interactive page page that allows others to contribute articles or first-person editorials, you’ll need to make sure those contributors don’t infringe copyrights, as that may make you or your institution liable for the infringement.

Ways to protect yourself and the institution you represent

  • Use original writing, photographs, and/or artwork that don’t closely paraphrase/mimic another person’s work in part or in whole.
  • Publish only work that (1) has already passed into the public domain, (2)  the original creator has placed in the public domain, (3) the original author has published under a Creative Commons license (and abide by the terms of that license), or (4) for which you have obtained clear, unambiguous written permission from the copyright holder to publish in the form and format you have chosen.
  • Follow the guidelines for fair use.

*Note: If you publish the work of volunteers (on your own site or any website where they post as volunteers representing your organization), make sure the volunteer agrees in writing that he or she has submitted only original work that doesn’t infringe the copyrights of others. Consider adding a segment on copyright and other aspects of online behavior to your volunteer training.


If you produce a substantial or highly original piece of work** (report on original research, book, body of photographs, original artwork), consider formal registration through the U.S. Copyright Office. Formal registration is required if you wish to assert your rights in court and have the ability to collect damages for infringements by others. The process is straightforward and simple.

**Please note: Your contract with your institution (or the contract implied by policies that govern all faculty and staff) may give your institution ownership of the copyrights to all material you produce in the course of your work, unless you have a contract that specifies otherwise.

Moral rights

In the context of copyright law, moral rights involve the rights of creators to control how and in what context their work gets used, particularly with respect to uses that might damage their personal integrity or reputation, or that of the institution the creator represents.

Copyrights protect the property rights of creators, whereas moral rights include the right to (1) proclaim authorship of a work, (2) disclaim authorship of a work and (3) object to any modification or use of the work that would be injurious to the author's reputation.

As property, copyrights can be bought, sold, transferred, or traded, whereas moral rights always belong to a work’s creator.

Although the Berne Convention identifies moral rights as part of copyright considerations, U.S. law has never supported moral rights as strongly as European nations and many other nations do.


For additional information

Frequently asked questions about copyright.

Useful definitions of technical terms used in copyright law.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.