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Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights, determined by Title 17 of the  United States Code, granted to authors of original works. These rights include the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the original work. Copyright pertains to literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other works, both published and unpublished, which are fixed in a tangible medium. That means that the work has to exist in some sort of physical form for some period of time, and that the work can be transmitted or reproduced in some way. A choreographed dance is protected, but "social dances" generally are not. Copyright laws do not cover ideas, but rather the expression of those ideas.

The Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution gives Congress 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, originally designed to encourage publishing by allowing authors to make money from their works, grants authors control over how their works are shared and disseminated. This guide is designed to provide basic information on some of the different aspects of copyright law, especially as it pertains to higher education. However, it is not a substitute for legal advice or the Lesley University Policy on the Use of Copyrighted Works.

Exclusive Rights

Copyright grants six basic rights, known as "exclusive rights," to the owner of copyright. These rights, outlined in Section 106 of Title 17, are:

  • to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work;
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

Authors can transfer some or all of these rights, either as exclusive rights or non-exclusive rights. There are some examples where copyrighted material may be used without permission, usually referred to as limitations or exceptions. One common limitation is fair use.

Purpose of This Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide a general overview of copyright. It is designed to provide basic information about copyright and should not be considered legal advice. For questions on copyright policy at Lesley, please see the Lesley University Policy on the Use of Copyrighted Works. For questions on copyright for course reserves, see our guide on Course Reserves