What is copyright?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property law. It gives creators a bundle of exclusive legal rights in their works, including the right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Distribute the work
  • Prepare a derivative work
  • Publicly display the work
  • Publicly perform the work

These rights allow a creator to control the use and reuse of their work.

U.S. Copyright Law originated with the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution states that:

Congress shall have the 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.

Copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It does not protect ideas. For example, the idea of a boarding school that trains wizards is not protected by copyright, but J.K. Rowling’s text describing the details of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is protected.

Things Protected by ©        Things NOT Protected by ©
Literary works Ideas
Dramatic works Facts
Music Data
Pantomime Procedures
Choreography Systems
Photographs Methods of Operation
Graphics Processes
Sculptures Concepts
Motion Pictures Principles
Sound and Video Recordings Discoveries

Your work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" the moment it’s saved to your laptop or Google Drive, written down on a piece of paper, recorded on your phone, etc. To be protected by copyright, your choreography must be recorded or written down.

Copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. If you paint a self-portrait, copyright protection in that self-portrait lasts indefinitely while you are alive. Once you go on to your great reward, the self-portrait will be protected for 70 years. Your heirs will inherit your copyright and continue to control the reuse of your self-portrait.

In academia, scholars both create and reuse copyrightable works daily. Being knowledgeable about copyright ensures that you understand the rights you have in your scholarly works. It also empowers you to reuse other’s works legally.