Office of Technology Transfer
Ideas Reaching the World


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A Copyright is a type of intellectual property that grants the creator (author) of an original creative work the exclusive legal right to determine whether and under what conditions it may be copied and used by others.  Once a creative idea has been reduced to tangible form, for example by securing it in a fixed medium, the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights.

Creative Works eligible under The Copyright Act of 1976 include:

  • Literary
  • Musical
  • Dramatic
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Audio-visual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Derivative works
  • Compilations
  • Architectural works
  • Computer programs

Like patents, Copyrights have a limited lifetime where the owner can enforce their rights.  Depending on certain factors such as the type of the works, whether it has been published, and whether it was created by an individual or corporation determines the life of the Copyright.  Currently in the US, a Copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the original author, or for creations by a corporation, 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter.  

Although registration of your Copyright is available, it is not mandatory for protection of your copyrighted works. The United States joined the international Berne Convention which revised some of the US copyrights law including registration and copyright notice to the public. Although not mandatory in the US, registering your copyrighted works serves as initial evidence of a valid Copyright and enables the owner to seek statutory damages and attorney's fees in an infringement suit.  The downside of not registering may limit the damages received in an infringement suit.  

An important element of Copyright Law is "Derivative Works" which are derivations of the original creative work by an author.  Only copyright owners have the exclusive right to produce derivative works based on their original, copyrighted works. Derivative works in the university setting are mostly tied to computer software code. An author who has created a software program  to perform a certain algorithm or function is the only one who can create derivative works of that software program. You can have multiple authors of software code. When the Office of Technology Transfer licenses the right to a company to develop and use the software commercially, a right granted to the company is to create derivative works of that code. A very important aspect of Copyright Law over the last multiple decades is derivative works for computer software code.  The definition of a computer program was added into Title 17 Section 101 of the Copyrights Act stating "A "computer program" is a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result."  In no case does the Copyright extend to the underlying algorithm or process.

Another important element of Copyright Law is the "Fair Use' doctrine which limits the rights of Copyright owners from seeking legal action against uses of their works falling under the Fair Use doctrine.  You typically see this in the educational setting where a teaching uses a small portion of copyrighted material to teach a class.  Fair Use is a limitation to copyright owners intended to balance the interests of owners with that of the public interest in the wider distribution and use of creative works.  This allows Fair Use as a defense to copyright infringement claims that might otherwise be considered Copyright infringement. Falling under the Fair Use doctrine are parodies of copyrighted works.  A parody is a work is simply created to imitate or make fun of an original work by means of satiric or ironic imitation.