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This Copyright Guide will inform you on copyright law and issues pertaining to the use of copyrighted materials.  This guide is for educational purposes only and will not provide any legal advice. If you need legal advice in reference to copyright law, please reach out to the MCW Office of General Counsel.

What is Copyright?

Copyright protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Copyright law applies to both published and unpublished works.

Copyright = Originality and Fixation
  • Originality
    • Works are original when they are independently created by a human author and have a modicum of creativity.
    • There are some things, however, that are not creative, like: titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; and mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Fixation
    • A work is fixed when it is captured (by or under the authority of the author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.

Copyright Fundamentals
  • Copyright grants creator/authors the ability to control the use of the work created and gives to authors the following exclusive rights:
    •  Make copies (download, PDF email attachment, photocopy or scan, etc.)
    •  Distribute copies (sharing on the internet, sending in an email)
    •  Prepare derivatives based on the original work (a translation, a sequel)
    •  Perform the work publicly (act out, read aloud, play for an audience)
    •  Display the work publicly (posting on a web site)

Copyrightable Works

  • Literary works
  • Music, lyrics, audio recordings
  • Photographs, paintings, sculptures, etc.
  • Dramatic or choreographic works
  • Cinematographic works
  • Architectural works
  • Collections of literary and artistic works
  • Databases or Computer software


Non-Copyrightable Works

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Concepts
  • Methods

Copyrighting Your Work

  • Copyright is typically automatic the moment the work is created. In the US, that is once the work has been captured in a fixed form. 
  • While copyright does not last forever, in the US, it does cover the life of the author plus 70 years.

Length of Copyright Protection

Works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years per the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act which applied to works created from 1978 onwards. 

  • The protected status of works published before 1978 and after 1923 varies in accordance with how they were published, registered, and renewed.  
  • For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, copyright protection is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. 
  • When a work is no longer protected by copyright due to copyright expiring, it falls into the public domain. 

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