Copyright Policy and Resource Guide What Copyright Means

What kind of work does the copyright act cover? (Hint: More than just those documents bearing that copyright symbol (like this, "©").)

In short, the U.S. Copyright Act affords legal protection to most any work "fixed in a tangible medium." Behold the possibilities! A book, a script, the score of a musical, a comic strip, you name it and it's probably protected. The symbol ("©") serves as notice to the world that a work is protected. Call it a courtesy. However, a copyright owner's legal protection is not contingent upon the presence of the copyright symbol. It is no defense to a copyright infringement action, that the work we copied, used or distributed did not bear the famous "©." The presence of the symbol may affect the amount of damages we owe for our misuse, not whether or not we owe damages at all.

The following is a more detailed list of those works covered under the Act and the rights associated with copyright ownership of the works. According to Section 106 of the Copyright Act (90 Stat 2541) the law gives the copyright owner exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  1. Reproduce copies of the work. 
  2. Prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.
  3. Distribute copies of the work by sale, rental, lease, or lending.
  4. Publicly perform the work (if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work or a pantomime, motion picture or audiovisual work).
  5. Publicly display the work (if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, sculptural, graphic, or pictorial work-including the individual images of a film or a pantomime). 

The copyright owner retains these rights even when the work itself belongs to someone else. However, these rights are not absolute. The copyright owner's rights are subject to the limitations of the Fair Use Doctrine found in section 107 of the Copyright Act. Under the Fair Use Doctrine and the guidelines that accompany, one may, for certain purposes, exercise the copyright owner's rights without the permission to do so.