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Copyright Basics for GW: Home

Why Understand Copyright?

Albert Einstein

"Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet."

Mark Twain's Notebook. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935. (p381) 


Despite these words of encouragement, understanding copyright is important -- for authors who are supposed to benefit from copyright protections, for researchers and instructors, who want to use copyright materials in their work, and for publishers, who strive to bring the two together.  The goal of this research guide is to provide a resource for the GW community to move us forward in our understanding of copyright and how it affects our work.

Relevant Laws and Guidelines

What is Copyright?

In the United States, copyright is the protection granted to the author/creator of a fixed form of creative expression that he/she shall have the exclusive right to reproduce, perform, and display that work as well as exclusive rights to make derivative works from the original. Copyright law is delineated in Title 17 of the US Code. 

The following are links which provide basic background on copyright. 

Copyright Basics FAQ

I.  Why Copyright?

According to the US Constitution, the purpose of copyright is to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." The full quote is:

"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."

II.  How long does copyright protection last?

  • For works created after January 1, 1978:  Life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
  • Works published between 1925 and 1977, see this copyright duration chart.
  • Works published before 1925 are in the Public Domain.   

III. What can be copyrighted?

According to the Copyright Circular, the following types of material can be copyrighted:

1 literary works
2 musical works, including any accompanying words
3 dramatic works, including any accompanying music
4 pantomimes and choreographic works
5 pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
6 motion pictures and other audiovisual works
7 sound recordings
8 architectural works

IV. What cannot be copyrighted?

  1. Works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression
  2. Ideas
  3. Works containing no original authorship such as a directory of commonly known information, news, etc.  
  4. Slogans (although they may qualify for trademark protection)
  5. Works in the public domain

V. Does copyright have to be registered?

No, currently, works become copyrighted automatically once they are fixed in a tangible form. 

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