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Copyright & Creative Commons: Copyright Basics

Basic information on Copyright and Creative Commons

Intellectual Property - What is it?

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), "Intellectual Property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as: inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce." 

Intellectual Property can be protected legally by patents, trademarks, or copyright. Patents protect inventions. Trademarks protect words, phrases or symbols that are associated with a brand. Copyright protects creative works and that is the form of IP that this guide will focus on. 

Lightbulb with a brain inside.

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Copyright History

The foundation for copyright protection can be found in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8:

"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..."

As soon as an artistic work is fixed in a tangible medium, meaning written down, recorded, drawn, etc., the rights holder is guaranteed the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce
  • Distribute
  • Make derivative works/adaptations
  • Display publicly
  • Perform publicly
  • Digitally transmit

Rights holders are not required to register their works to gain copyright protection. Currently the rights holder retains these rights for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years. After the copyright expires, the works fall in to the Public Domain where anyone can reproduce, perform, or adapt the work. Currently, works from 1928 and earlier are in the public domain.

Bear in mind that these rights can, and often are, sold or transferred, either as a bundle or individually.  The original author can be the rights holder, but, in many cases, it is the publisher that holds these rights. 

Things like facts, ideas, titles, or government publications are not covered by copyright. 


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