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Copyright Essentials

An introduction to copyright issues for the NMSU community. This guide does NOT supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.

How Copyright Works

Copyright law attempts to strike a balance between protecting the rights of authors and creators and providing the public with access to information and ideas.

What is and is not protected?

  • Copyright protects creative works that have been fixed in some tangible form of expression.
  • Creative works may include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, choreographic works, motion pictures, sound recordings, architectural works, visual art, and computer programs.
  • In order to be protected, works must have some element of creativity. Blank forms or "common property" information sources such as calendars or phonebooks are not protected.
  • Symbols, slogans, and names are covered by other areas of intellectual property law such as patents and trademarks.
  • Works that are not protected by copyright or other laws are said to be in the public domain. For more information, see the Open Source/Open Access tab.

What rights does copyright provide?

Copyright provides copyright holders with a set of exclusive rights, including the ability to:

  • reproduce (copy) the work
  • make derivative works (turn your book into a movie)
  • distribute, sell, rent and/or lease copies of the work
  • perform or display the work publicly

Copyright holders may be someone other than the original author or creator. Some authors/creators transfer some or all of their copyright to other entities in exchange for having their work published, produced or distributed. Employers may also assert that a work is made under "work for hire" circumstances and thus claim some or all copyrights. See the Author's/Creator's Rights tab for resources on retaining your rights.

When does a work become eligible for protection?

At one time, U.S. authors and creators were required to register and renew works with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is no longer the case. Current copyright law protects creative works automatically from the first time they are created and fixed in a tangible form, whether written on paper or saved on disk. No special symbols (such as ©) or other formalities are required. It is helpful, however, to register copyright if an author believes her/his work may be infringed upon and wishes to have the option to pursue certain legal actions. See the Author's/Creator's Rights tab for more information on registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

How long does copyright last?

This is one of the most contentious areas of the law. The original term of copyright protection was 14 years + 1 renewal. Under terms established as part of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, a work is protected for the life of the author + 70 years. Corporate works are protected for 120 years after their creation or 90 years after their publication. This means the majority of U.S. works created in the 20th century are protected by copyright even if they are no longer in print and no author or creator can be identified. See the Seeking Permission tab for more information on these cases involving "orphan works." 

What are the penalties for infringement?

U.S. law recognizes several types of activity that may result in liability for copyright infringement. Direct infringement involves cases where the defendent uses another's work without permission and without any exemption. Contributory infringement involves cases where the defendent did not directly violate copyright, but induced, caused, or materially assisted the infringer by providing services, equiment, or other resources to accomplish infringement. Vicarious infringement involves cases where the defendent had the "right and ability" to supervise the infringing action. This is generally used to hold employers responsible for actions of employees.

The law allows for actual and statutory damages. Remedies may include injunction (informing the infringer to cease and desist from using a work), monetary or statutory damages. Statutory damages provide anywhere from $750 to $30,000 per infringed work. Note that an award may be reduced to $200 if the infringer believed s/he was acting in good faith. For the complete text of the law in this area, see the "Stopping Copyright Infringement" resource on the U.S. Copyright Office website. See the link below.

What about the idea of protecting public access to information and ideas?

Great question! In addition to the rights and terms laid out here, the law also offers a variety of exemptions that permit others to use copyrighted work under certain circumstances. One of the most important exemptions is fair use, which permits uses of copyrighted materials for purposes including criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. See the Fair Use tab for more information. Also, see the Open Source/Open Access Resources tab for works that may be shared, re-used, and remixed.

Guides and Tutorials

The following resources provide more in-depth explanations of copyright law and are highly recommended.