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An introduction to the complex topic of copyright.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of rights extended to authors of original, creative works. It allows creators to control and protect their works--to limit distribution or reproduction, for example, or to receive payment when a work is reproduced or disseminated. 

The basis of copyright is in Title 17 of the United States Code. However, different interpretations of the law’s provisions can depend on the judicial circuit. The United States Copyright Office offers a number of guides for a general audience, called "circulars," about copyright law.

Amherst College provides the following principles to aid students and faculty in copyright matters and fair use claims. This is guidance only and not legal advice. You don’t need to register a work in order to claim copyright. Registration does provide benefits, but it’s not necessary. In order for a work to be eligible for copyright, it needs to be original, creative, and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Read more at: 17 U.S.C. § 401 - 412

Additional Resources:

Copyright First Responders:

New England Copyright Boot Camp:

What is protected under copyright?

There are eight categories of works protected by copyright:

  1. Literary Works
  2. Musical Works, including accompanying words
  3. Dramatic Works, including accompanying music
  4. Pantomimes and Choreographic Works
  5. Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural works
  6. Motion Pictures and other Audiovisual Works
  7. Sound Recordings
  8. Architectural Works

17 U.S.C. § 102

What are the Right's in Copyright

There are six rights that fall under copyright; a creator may give the entire bundle of rights away or single rights:

  1. Right to reproduce

  2. Right to make derivative works

  3. Right to distribute copies of a work

  4. Right to perform a work publicly

  5. Right to display a work publicly

  6. For sound recordings, the right to perform the work by digital audio transmission

17 U.S.C. § 106

What doesn’t fall under copyright?

Copyright does not extend to the following:

  • Ideas

  • Procedures

  • Processes

  • Systems

  • Methods of Operation

  • Concepts

  • Principles

  • Names

  • Titles

  • Short Phrases

17 U.S.C. § 102, Copyright Circular 34

For more information, see Copyrightability of Charts, Tables, and Graphs.

Works created by the US government cannot be copyrighted but the copyright status of works created by US states and territories is less clear: see the State Copyright Resource Center.

Image Copyright

The Amherst College Library Image Research Guide offers help with finding and using images, as well as guidance on determining image copyright and fair use.

If you are using images from the Amherst Center Digital Collections (ACDC), be sure to read the ACDC Rights Statements information.