What Is a Copyright – And What Isn’t?

What, exactly, is a copyright?

A copyright is a type of intellectual property protection on certain eligible works. These works include (but are not limited to):

  • Literary Works (books, website copy, articles, short stories, etc.)
  • 2-Dimensional Artwork (painting, photography, graphic design, etc.)
  • Performing Arts (screenplays, lyrics, etc.)
  • Sound Recordings (music, music & lyrics together, recordings of speeches, etc.
  • Architectural designs

What does it mean to be a copyright holder?

A copyright holder has the following exclusive legal rights:

  • The right to use his or her work, whether for financial gain or otherwise
  • The right to distribute the work or perform the work in public
  • The right to make copies of the work
  • The right to create a derivative work (such as a movie or sequel based off of a book)
  • The right to allow anyone else to exercise these rights

If any of these things are done without the express permission of the copyright holder, it would be considered copyright infringement.

What kinds of things cannot be copyrighted?

The three main types of intellectual property, copyrights, trademarks, and patents, are each layers of protection, but the scope of that protection is quite different. Copyright registration is a type of protection available only to works of “original authorship” — something that has been created by someone — that are “affixed in a tangible medium” — something that exists, either physically or digitally.

Some examples of things that do not meet this criteria are:

  • Names
  • Titles, including book titles (although they could carry a trademark)
  • Short phrases
  • Logos, if they fail to carry any significant authorship
  • Recipes (while instructions might be copyrighted, a list of ingredients and volumes cannot)
  • Blank tables or charts
  • Calendars (but accompanying images can be protected as 2-D Artwork)
  • Inventions (this would be a patent)

In addition, anything taken from the public domain (older works whose copyrights have expired; works dedicated specifically to the public domain) or considered public knowledge (schedules of sporting events; standard measurements) would not be eligible for copyright protection.