11-Copyright Basics

54 What Copyright Covers

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 a tangible medium of expression. (See the detailed explanations below.)

The copyright symbol - featuring one c in a circle
Copyright covers original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

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

In addition to these, new formats such as email, software, video games, and digital works including web pages and online images have all been determined to have copyright protection.

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.

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


  • 1+1=2
  • George IV died in 1830
  • Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark

Works of the U.S. government produced by government employees

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.

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Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research Copyright © 2015 by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.