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Stony Brook University

Copyright Guide

Copyright Basics

Copyright Law in the United States is only one part of Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property includes copyright, trademarks, trade secrets, & patents. Intellectual Property also supports the right to publicity and right to privacy.

Known as Title 17 of the United States Code, copyright law protects original work in a fixed, tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What is protected by U.S. Copyright law?

As stated above, only fixed, tangible works of expression can hold copyright. Examples include: literary works; musical works; choreography; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; motion pictures; computer programs; and architectural works.

What is not protected by U.S. Copyright law?

Idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work. Nor do works created by the U.S. Federal Government (some state government works can hold copyright, but state law can not).

Who owns the copyright?

The author or creator of the work owns the copyright. More than one author or creator can hold copyright for one work. This is known as joint authorship. There are times when the creator or author is not the copyright owner, such as work you do for an employer via an agreement, known as “works-for-hire.” And, in the case of “collective works” and works where the copyright holder transfers authorship.

What exclusive rights does the copyright owner have?

There are six exclusive rights of the copyright holder. These include the right to make copies and distribute their work, prepare derivatives of their work, and to perform and display their work.

How long does copyright last?

In general, for works published on or after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright lasts the life of the author + 70 years after the author’s death. For co-authored work, or joint works, the duration ends after the death of the last author +70 years. The duration for anonymous, unpublished, and works-for-hire works last 95 years after the first publication or 120 years after its creation. When the duration of copyright ends the work enters the public domain.

Copyright law has been expanded and changed since its conception and works published before January 1, 1978 have different duration lengths. Public Domain tools can help you make a determination on a works copyright length. Please see the Public Domain section in this guide for more information.