Kinds of Works That Are Protected by Copyright

Copyright law covers all "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression," whether published or unpublished.

A work is considered original if it "embodies some minimum amount of creativity."[1] For example, a how-to manual or a particular arrangement of data may be considered original works.

Fixed means that the work exists in a form that has "more than transitory duration." A cake decorated with a Happy Birthday message is unlikely to be fixed, but a Web site almost certainly is.

Tangible medium of expression refers to what can be seen, heard, or felt, either directly or with the assistance of a machine or device now known or later developed.

Such works include, for example:

  • Literary works (this designation covers works composed of words and/or numbers, such as books, articles, Web sites, and software programs)
  • 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 audio-visual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Copyright protection does not extend to:

  • Facts, ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries. Note however that a particular expression or arrangement of facts, ideas, etc., may be protected.
  • Works of the U.S. federal government or any U.S. federal government employee acting within the scope of his/her employment
  • Works in the public domain
  • Works for which copyright has expired (thus in the public domain)

Use the information in chapter 6 of this guide, "When Works Pass into the Public Domain," to determine the copyright status of the work you wish to use.

Table of Contents | Chapter 2 | Chapter 4


[1] Kenneth D. Crews, Copyright Essentials for Librarians and Educators (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000), 9.