Demystifying Copyright Law - A Comprehensive Overview

Copyright law balances authors’ rights with the public’s ability to use their work without permission or payment. Understanding these laws is crucial for libraries as they become content providers, aggregators, and publishers.

This article demystifies copyright fundamentals through short videos and downloadable text lessons. It also debunks common copyright myths and provides links to additional resources.


Copyright law aims to balance the interest of content creators with the public’s right to access it. In addition to the general rule that a work’s first owner owns its copyright, there are several exceptions, including works made for hire.

A critical factor in determining ownership is the nature of the work. Is it a factual work more likely to be entitled to less protection because it requires less creative effort or artistic work?

To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be original and possess at least minimal creativity. For a job to be protected by copyright law, it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It means it must be recorded in some form, written on paper or saved on a computer, to be eligible for copyright protection. Works that are not protected include ideas, procedures, methods, systems of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries. When comparing two works for infringement purposes, courts apply a subtractive process in which the unprotected elements are subtracted from the allegedly infringing work.


Copyrights are among the most common forms of intellectual property. While other forms of IP, such as trademarks and patents, can be challenging to obtain and enforce, copyrights are relatively straightforward. However, they are also easily violated by those who don’t understand them.

The goal of copyright legislation is to strike a balance between content creators’ rights and public access. As a result, it allows some uses without permission (exceptions and limitations) that would otherwise constitute copyright infringement.

A work is protected by copyright if it meets minimal originality standards and is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” It means it must be recorded on a physical object, such as in a book or film, or stored in a computer.

Federal government works aren’t copyrightable, but that doesn’t mean others can’t use them. Copyright owners can transfer their rights to other people or organizations through licenses.

Copyright duration

Copyright protection lasts several years, and various factors determine this. The Berne Convention stipulates that copyright should last the author’s life plus 50 years, but this varies by country. Works created on or after January 1, 1978, in the United States, are undoubtedly protected for 70 years after the author’s death. However, suppose the work has more than one author or is considered a “work for hire,” meaning it was prepared as an employee’s work within the scope of her employment. As per current regulations, the duration of copyright is either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. Works published with copyright permissions before 1923 had an initial term of 28 years, which could be renewed for a further 67 years. Please note that renewal filings are no longer mandatory. When the copyright term ends, the work enters the public domain—moral rights, separate from copyrights, last in perpetuity.

Infringement of copyright

In a case alleging copyright infringement, the plaintiff must demonstrate that they own a legitimate copyright, that their original work was copied, and that the defendant infringed upon their rights. Courts consider several factors in determining substantial similarity, such as format, appearance, sound, or words. In addition to direct infringement penalties such as fines and the destruction of infringing goods, courts can award statutory damages that reflect actual losses suffered by the plaintiff.

A work enjoys copyright protection when it is independently created by a human author and fixed in a tangible expression. However, some works are not protected by copyright law because they do not meet the threshold for originality: titles, names, short phrases or slogans, familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation or lettering, or listings of ingredients or contents. In addition, specific works may not be protected by copyright law if an employee prepared them as part of their employment.