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Copyright Resources

A guide to the tricky world of copyright: what is covered, what is not, and how to tell the difference.

What is Copyright?

"Copyright is a form of protection provided by to authors of 'original works of authorship,' including 'pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.' The owner of copyright in a work has the exclusive right to:

  • make copies,
  • prepare derivative works,
  • sell or distribute copies, and
  • display the work publicly.


Anyone else wishing to use the work in these ways must have the permission of the author or someone who has derived rights through the author."

(U.S. Copyright Office)


As American copyright law has evolved through the years, the restrictions on usage have gotten more and more rigorous, and so it can be difficult to know what's available for use and what is off-limits. This can often come down to how much of the work can be used, which is even more confusing. This guide hopes to simplify the subject of copyright enough that you know what you are and are not allowed to do with the works of other people.



This Image is in the Public Domain!
"Copyright. By the President of the United States of America. A proclamation ... Done at the City of Washington this ninth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and ten .... Wm. H. Taft. [Washington D. C. 1910]."

Library of Congress American Time Capsule

What is Protected?

Original works of authorship that have been fixed to a particular tangible medium.

"The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device."

Fixed, protected works include:

  • 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

However, some things must be kept free for all to use, and can therefore NOT be put under copyright protection, such as:

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Titles

 Adapted from Copyright Basics, [PDF]

"Useful Objects" are also not protected under copyright. "A “useful article” is an object having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. Examples are clothing, furniture, machinery, dinnerware, and lighting fixtures. An article that is normally part of a useful article may itself be a useful article, for example, an ornamental wheel cover on a vehicle." 

U.S. Copyright Office. (n.d.). Useful Articles. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from

Copyright in American Law

© Copyright in the Constitution ©

The Congress shall have 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.

United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8

© Copyright in Current Law ©

The United States copyright law is contained in chapters 1 through 8 and 10 through 12 of title 17 of the United States Code. The Copyright Act of 1976, which provides the basic framework for the current copyright law, was enacted on October 19, 1976, as Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541. The 1976 Act was a comprehensive revision of the copyright law in title 17. ...

Chapters 9 and 13 of title 17 contain two types of design protection that are independent of copyright protection. Chapter 9 of title 17 is the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984 (SCPA), as amended. On November 8, 1984, the SCPA was enacted as title III of Pub. L. No. 98-620, 98 Stat. 3335, 3347. Chapter 13 of title 17 is the Vessel Hull Design Protection Act (VHDPA). It was enacted on October 28, 1998, as title V of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Pub. L. No. 105-304, 112 Stat. 2860, 2905. Subsequent amendments to the title 17 provisions for SCPA and the VHDPA are also included in the list below, in chronological order of their enactment.

Significant copyright legislation enacted since ... October 2007 includes the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010.

Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code, Circular 92

Useful Resources

Legal Guide for the Visual Artist


The information presented here is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.

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