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Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1879)

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What is copyright?

by Mike Goad

Although I am not a lawyer, or, perhaps, because I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that concepts associated with copyright issues are sometimes made unnecessarily difficult.  I don't mean to say that copyright law is easy by any means.  However, it is my belief that interpretations and claims that are often asserted concerning copyright do little more than cloud or confuse things, and that sometimes it's done with that specific intention. While my interests are primarily with literary copyright, much of what I will be discussing in this article applies to music copyright, graphic copyright, and copyright for other forms of original expression.

To start with, copyright deals with the right to copy "something" that has been created. This right to copy belongs to the creator of the "something" that he created, or, if he was hired to create it, to the person or company that hired him.

The "something" that has been created is called a work. It can be a literary work, such as a novel, a poem, or a short story.  It can also be an artistic work, such as a painting, drawing, or sculpture, or a musical work.  Other types of works that can be protected by copyright are maps, movies, sound recordings, and architectural drawings.

The creator of the work is called its author in copyright law.  It doesn't matter whether the work is a painting, a drawing, a song, or a novel.  In copyright, its creator is called its author.

(Besides the right to copy the work there are also several other rights that belong exclusively to the author of the work. I will be discussing these in more detail in a future article.)

Two things are required for a work to be copyright protected.  It must be an original creation and it must be fixed in some tangible way.

Originality is a prerequisite for copyright.  A work that is assembled from pre-existing material or that is developed by procedure will have little or no originality to it.  There must be some creativity involved for a work to be copyrighted.

A copyright protected work must be fixed in some tangible format.  As I am writing this, my words are not protected because, if the computer is turned off or loses power before this text is saved, what I have written will go away and all I have left is the concepts and ideas that I wrote down.  When I save the file I am writing this to, the words are recorded to the hard drive of my computer.  The tangible format that they are saved to is the file that resides on my computer.

In the simplest textual form, the tangible form required by copyright law is the recording of words onto some sort of surface, usually paper.  As original, creative text flows from the pencil or pen, or as it is pounded into the paper with an old-fashioned typewriter, the copyright protection for those words begins. 

For other types of work, the medium in which the work is fixed is different.  Movies are fixed in the film, videos in the tape, paintings "in" the canvas and so on.

The key is that to be copyrightable a work must be in a form that can be copied.

What, then, is copyright?  Copyright is a set of rights that belong exclusively to the author of an original, creative work.  The most basic of these rights is the right to make a copy of the work.  Except as allowed in the copyright law, making a copy of the work or any portion of the work is an infringement of this right.


(blog posted 12/27/2005)

Copy Right, Copy Sense Home

Copyright Articles:

What is Copyright?

My Copyright Infringement

How to Deal With Online Media Pirates

Copyright Fundamentals for Genealogy

My Copyright was Infringed!

What is NOT protected by copyright?

Copyright Claims That Just Ain't So


Copyright Concepts:

Authors Labor

Authors Rights

Civil or Criminal?



Copyright Facts

Copyright Notice


Electronic Mail

Fair Use

Fair Use and the DMCA

Foreign Works

From Creation


Inadvertent Infringement


Infringement Remedies

Licenses and Notices

Not Everything Protected






Public Domain

Purpose of Copyright

Really Copyrighted?

U.S. Government Works

What's Protected -

Who Owns the Law? -

Work Place Training


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2005, Michael Goad