Skip to main content

Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights to a piece of intellectual property. Unlike owning a piece of tangible property like a house or a car, copyright ownership applies to the underlying idea or intellectual creation of an author. The author of a popular book does not own all the printed copies of that work, but they do exert control over the use of the text, storyline, characters, and other creative ideas that make that work a unique piece of intellectual property. 

Owning the copyright for a work means that you control the ability to:

  • Reproduce (make copies of) the work
  • Modify or prepare derivative works based on the work. (Examples of derivative works include translations, transforming printed works into musicals or films, rearrangements of scores, and any other recast, transformation or adaptation of a work)
  • Distribute the work in any format by sale, publication, license, rental, or for free
  • Publicly perform or display the work
  • Authorize others to exercise some or all of those rights

The author or creator of a work is always the first copyright owner. Your work is protected from the moment it is in a fixed format, regardless of whether it contains a copyright notice or the copyright has been registered. 

UMD Libraries are here to help you understand and protect your rights as an author of scholarly and creative works. Learn more about copyright here on our website or reach out to to ask copyright questions of UMD librarians. Librarians cannot offer legal advice, but we can help you to understand your rights and provide next steps for negotiating with publishers, asking for permission to use copyrighted materials, and seeking legal counsel.

Read on for more copyright basics or visit one of the links below for more information

What is Protected by Copyright?

Original works, whether or not published, that exist in a medium that can be touched, seen, heard, read and fall into one of the following categories are protected by copyright.

Copyright applies to a wide variety of works including, but not limited to:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, lyrics, and sound recordings
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Visual works (photographs, paintings, sculptures, maps, logos, etc.)
  6. Multimedia works, movies, and other audio-visual works
  7. Software code
  8. Architectural works, etc.

Items not protected include, but are not limited to:

  1. Titles, names, slogans
  2. Ideas, procedures, methods, principles, concepts, systems
  3. Works lacking originality (calendars, tape measures, rulers, etc.)
  4. Works created by employees of the U.S. Government in the course of their employment
  5. Works comprised entirely of public domain information

These works are protected from the moment they are in a fixed format regardless of whether they contain a copyright notice or copyright has been registered

Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?

You may choose to register your original work with the US Copyright Office, even though your copyright will exist regardless of whether you take this step. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registering your works provides legal evidence of your copyright that may help you in litigation, should someone use or profit from your work without permission.


Using Copyrighted Material

In addition to understanding your own rights as a creator, a knowledge of copyright can ensure that you are respecting the rights of other authors and other copyright owners. Using materials that are protected under copyright can also open you to legal liability.

In some specific circumstances, you can utilize copyright works without asking for permission under the US doctrine of Fair Use. For more information, check out Understanding Fair Use.

Find more in depth information and resources on Using Copyrighted Material and Obtaining Permissions can be found on the UMD Copyright Research Guide

A small category of works that are free from copyright protections are classified as being in the public domain and can be used without first obtaining permissions and regardless of Fair Use guidance. Read on to learn more about what kinds of works are in the public domain.

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain is a concept that cultural and creative works pass into public ownership after a useful period of copyright protection or are automatically added to the

The following works are in the public domain and can be used by anyone for any legal purpose without permission.

  • Works created by U.S. government employees in the scope of their employment
  • Works for which copyright protection has expired
  • Works that do not contain the requisite originality (e.g., facts, blank forms)
  • Works that contain a notice from the copyright owner expressly rejecting any claim of copyright and placing the work in the public domain
Back to Top