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Copyright: Basics

What is copyright?

The U.S. Copyright Act (title 17 of the U.S. Code) is the federal statute that describes copyright law in the United States. Copyright protection applies to original works of authorship set in a tangible medium. Original works may include literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural and audiovisual creations. A tangible medium may include anything from paper to hard drives and other electronic memory devices, the web, film, software, architectural blueprints etc.

How long does copyright protection last?

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright privileges last for the life of the author plus 70 years for individuals. For works created by companies or other organizations copyright privileges last for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication – whichever is shorter. For more detailed information about the duration of copyright, see the link below.

Why is copyright important?

We are all creators and users of copyrighted works.

Significant penalties can be imposed for copyright infringement.

Copyright law restricts how faculty can use copyrighted works in their teaching, research, and writing.

Copyright law offers a number of exceptions that can apply in an educational setting.

What is protected?

Copyright protection is designed to give creators of original works the right to be compensated when others use their creations in particular ways. It grants copyright holders the exclusive rights to the work's reproduction, adaptation (that is, preparation of derivative works such as a translation or adaptation of a movie from a book), publication, performance, and public display.

Today, copyright protection is automatic: no registration, use of the copyright symbol, or notice is required. However, copyright registration is required before a lawsuit for copyright infringement can be filed. If the copyright is timely registered, the copyright owner can also recover statutory damages and costs and attorney fees which can be significant in an infringement lawsuit.

What is NOT protected?

Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression (improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded);

Titles, names, slogans or short phrases; common symbols or designs; mere listings of ingredients or contents

Works consisting entirely of “common property” and no original authorship such as standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers etc.;

Ideas, procedures,  processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries (17 U.S.C section 102(b)) -- for more information on patents and trademarks, visit our Intellectual Property guide.


Faculty, staff, and students often have occasion to use copyrighted material in connection with their teaching, classroom assignments, or research. The purpose of this guide is to help members of the Clemson community understand and comply with applicable sections of copyright law. The creators of this guide are not able to provide legal advice.

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