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What is Copyright?

The content on this page is based on Wallace Center staff's interpretation of copyright law and institutional policies and is intended for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, nor university policy.

Copyright is a legal set of rights that is designed to protect the intellectual property of content creators (e.g. authors, artists, musicians, programmers) for works that exist in a fixed, tangible medium of expression. In other words, copyright protects the things that people create. Copyright law is codified in Title 17 of the U.S. Code (per the Copyright Act of 1976) and applies to all original works created under the jurisdiction of U.S. law.

Works of "authorship" under copyright law include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

One key component of copyright law is that works must exist in a "tangible medium of expression." Ideas and concepts that do not exist in a fixed state cannot be copyrighted. These are typically protected by another form of intellectual property rights – patents.

Copyright law also does not protect names, titles, and slogans as the intellectual property rights for these items are typically protected by trademarks.

Nowadays, a work does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected by copyright – once an original work exists in a fixed, tangible state the creator is entitled to copyright protection regardless of whether or not the work is registered with the copyright office or a copyright notice is posted on the work.


What Does Copyright Protect?

The copyright holder for a work has the sole right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivatives
  • Distribute the work by sale or transfer of ownership
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly
  • Perform the work via digital audio transmission (i.e. sound recordings)

Granted, it is easy to download songs from the web or make copies of a book instead of buying it, but doing so is in violation of the creator’s copyright.

Sometimes copyright holders will choose to license their work to others to use without needing express permission from the creator. Creative Commons is a popular licensing tool. Adding a Creative Commons license to your work does not forfeit your copyright, instead it allows individuals to use your work in a certain way without your explicit permission allowing others to more easily enjoy, extend, and build upon your creation.

It is important to remember these copyright protections apply to items created in the U.S. – works created and distributed abroad may be subject to different copyright protections depending on the country. Some international treaties exist to protect creators' rights abroad (such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works), but copyright law abroad can be tricky and may require clarification from appropriate legal professionals.


Why Does Copyright Matter?

According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress has 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" (U.S. Const. art. I, §8).

Copyright is designed to encourage creativity, as well as the development and implementation of new ideas and research. At the same time it is not meant to hinder progress of future works and therefore contains term limitations and exclusions such as fair use.

Think about it: Content creation can be a time and labor intensive process that may even require extensive financial resources. If it was possible to create something only to have someone else immediately take that item and sell it for their own profit, the incentive for investing in the creation in the first place is limited. Just as doctors, lawyers, and engineers expect to be compensated for their work, authors, musicians, artists, and so on expect to be compensated for their time and skills.

Copyright is designed to encourage creation without hindering future creation. And remember, copyright also protects you!


Intellectual Property Rights at RIT

Intellectual property can take many forms, but it typically refers to works or inventions that can be copyrighted, patented, or trademarked. RIT’s Intellectual Property Policy (C03.0) provides detailed information on the intellectual property rights of students, faculty, and the university as a whole – please consult the full policy for exact details and official information.

For the most part, students retain the intellectual property rights to the work they create while at RIT unless there is a formal agreement or the project is internally or externally funded (e.g. grant funded research). Students can be asked to grant rights or ownership to intellectual property for class projects; however, the student also has the option to decline this request and be given an alternate assignment without penalty.

RIT does require the publication of dissertations and theses "in the interests of open dissemination of research results and scholarship," but an embargo can be granted to protect intellectual property rights by the Dean of Graduate Education for up to one year under certain conditions.


Further Reading