10 Basics About Copyright Everyone Needs to Know

Earlier this week, Starbucks across the nation shut down as baristas spent 3 and a half hours getting “back to basics”. They retrained on many of the fundamentals of their job and learned how to improve the quality of their coffee.

In honor of that, I wanted to spend a few hours today getting back to basics as well. This is both for the benefit of long-time readers and for new readers as well as anyone on the Web that need this fundamental information.

To help with that, I’m going over ten basic copyright facts that everyone who creates or uses copyrighted goods should know.

So let’s take a moment to review some copyright basics and, perhaps, learn a few new things along the way.

Ten Facts About Copyright

In order to speed up this process and make this information easier to digest, I’ve broken down the facts into ten short explanations with links to more information if desired.

  1. Copyright Is Immediate: Copyright in a work is created once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. Though added legal avenues can be opened by registering the work with the Copyright Office, there are no formalities needed to obtain copyright in a work, including placing the copyright symbol.
  2. Copyright Protects a Set of Rights: Copyright is not just about the exclusive right to copy, it also provides the copyright holder with a sole right to publicly display a work, to publicly perform the work and create derivative works. Doing any of these things without the permission of the rightsholder is likely to be an infringement.
  3. Copyright Lasts a Really Long Time: In the United States, copyright in a personal creation lasts the life of the author plus seventy years. In corporate works, the term is a flat 95 years. After that term expires, the work passes into the public domain.
  4. Copyright Does Not Protect Many Things: Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. It also, typically, does not protect titles of a work, systems, concepts and anything that has not been fixed into a permanent medium. Finally, all works that are in the public domain are not protected by copyright and can be used freely.
  5. Not All Copying is Prevented: Though copyright gives the author of a work the sole right to produce copies, not all copying is prohibited. Fair use allows limited copying of a work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.”
  6. Fair Use is a Defense, Not a Right: Legally speaking, fair use is not a right, it is a defense against a copyright infringement suit (see footnote 20). Fair use rights do not exist and a whether or not a use is fair or not can only be determined conclusively by a judge/jury after the case has gone to the courts.
  7. Work For Hire is Limited: Though, in most cases, copyright in the work transfers to the author, in some cases it can transfer to the employer. Those cases are called “works for hire” and are limited to employees of the company (as recognized by Federal guidelines) and contractors in a limited set of fields that sign a work for hire agreement before the work is created. Most contract work is not a work for hire.
  8. It is Possible to Remove Many Infringing Works on the Web: If you find that your work is being misused on the Web, you can have it removed by filing a DMCA notice with the host. Alternatively, you can file a notice with the search engines and have the the content removed from their indexes. This can be done without an attorney or registering a work.
  9. Benefits of Registration: Though registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office does not earn you any new rights to your work, it is a prerequisite to filing suit for infringement in a Federal court, it enables you to collect attorney fees and statutory damages, serves as a public record of the copyright and services as prima facie evidence of ownership.
  10. Poor Man’s Copyright is a Myth: Finally, many claim that you can protect a work by mailing it to yourself and using the postmark as proof of copyright. This does not work and no provision of the law exists to make it possible. So-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” is not a substitute for registration.


Please note that all of the links above point to references on the U.S. Copyright Office Web site. Thus, it is crucial to know that all of these facts are based solely in U.S. law and may or may not apply to other countries.

As always, I am not a lawyer and nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice. If you need legal counsel, seek out a qualified attorney.


Though this information may seem very basic to anyone who has read this site for a very long time, it is important to note and to keep it close to heart.

These facts, and others like them, are the foundations upon which all of the work on this site is built and, without a robust understanding of the fundamentals, there is no way that one would be able to adequately protect their works or avoid copyright disputes down the road.

To new readers of Plagiarism Today, I hope that this helps you gain the fundamental knowledge that is necessary to understand and work with the other tools and methods taught on this site.

I look forward to building upon these facts to create a much more robust understanding of the confusing and difficult copyright climate on the Web.

Image Credit: Copyright Exposed image from the U.S. Copyright Office and is licensed in the public domain.l

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