The kinds of works covered by copyright are listed in Section 102 of the Copyright Act. In order for a work to be covered by copyright, it must be an original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. (See the detailed explanations below.)
There are several types of works that can be protected, including:
- Literary works
- Musical works, including any accompanying words
- Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
- Pantomimes and choreography
- Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- Sound recordings
- Architectural works
These categories are broad and can include print and digital works, such as email, computer software, web pages, and video games.
Definition: Original Work of Authorship
In copyright law, originality means that a work is independently created and possesses at least a minimum amount of creativity. For example, an alphabetized list of names and phone numbers would not receive copyright protection because it required no creativity to produce. Under the law, it does not matter how much time or effort you put into creating a work; if the work does not meet the minimum amount of creativity, it will not receive copyright protection.
Definition: Tangible Medium of Expression
For a work to be “fixed in a tangible medium,” it must exist in some perceptible format for more than a transitory duration. For example, a work that is fixed in a tangible medium could be written on paper, saved to a computer hard drive, or recorded on film. An improvised jazz performance that is not recorded would not have copyright protection, because the creative expression of the musician has not been saved in any tangible format.
What ISN’T Covered by Copyright?
Not all works are covered by copyright. Those not covered include:
Works already in the public domain (discussed in detail later in this book)
- Moby Dick
- Shakespeare’s plays
- Beethoven’s works
Works not fixed in a tangible medium
- A song in your head, but not recorded or written down
- Boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happily ever after
- Hero protagonist saves the world with the help of wacky sidekick
- George IV died in 1830
- Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark
Works of the U.S. government produced by government employees
- Federal government reports
- Acts/Bills of Congress
Copyright in Cases of a Work Made for Hire
If you create something as part of your job duties, it is likely a work made for hire. In these cases, the employer is considered the author and rights holder of a work made for hire rather than the employee.
Read the United States Copyright Office’s Works Made for Hire circular for a more nuanced discussion.