Copyright Eligibility

RCTC coffee house

© Live Performance, Rochester Community & Technical College
The photograph, taken with permission of the individuals included as subject matter, is an original creation (a pictorial or graphic work) protected by copyright law. In fact, the photograph itself depicts a copyrighted work: a musical performance. The musicians featured in the photograph likely were performing a copyrighted musical work, as well. Perhaps it was a work they authored themselves, or perhaps it was another musician's work (in which case, their public performance of the music may have been subject to copyright restrictions, too!). Amazing, isn't it? Who would have guessed that a single work of art could produce such a discussion of copyright!

What is Eligible for Copyright?

Copyright law protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright protection is automatic and works are protected from the moment they are created (whether they bear the © symbol or not). Included among such original works are the following:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

What is NOT eligible for copyright?

By law, certain works are not eligible for copyright protection. Accordingly, there are no restrictions on the use, photocopying, and reproduction of these works. Unprotected works fall into the following categories:

  • Works in the Public Domain: including works that never were copyrightable, as well as those for which the copyright has expired. It is not always easy to determine if a work is in the public domain. Different works (depending on when they were first published or created) fall under different sections of the copyright law and recent revisions to the law (including the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998) have lengthened the term of copyright protection for some works. One sure rule of thumb is that works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities' Intellectual Property Coordinators can assist you in making a determination about copyright duration and when and if a work entered the public domain.
  • Government Publications: works prepared by an officer or an employee of the U.S. government as a part of that person's official duty are not copyrightable. For instance, legislation authored by a United States senator is not copyrightable; but a book written by the same senator about his or her experiences on Capitol Hill is because such a book would not be written as part of the senator's official duty. Note that this government publications exception applies only to works of the U.S. government, however. Works of other governmental bodies, such as states, counties and cities, are copyrightable and can only be reproduced in accordance with law.
  • Non-copyrightable Works: works not fixed in a tangible medium of expression or that employ less than "minimal creativity" are not copyrightable. These include principles, ideas, processes, concepts, discoveries, procedures, systems, and methods of expression. For instance, copyright protection does not apply to slogans like Wendy's Hamburger's "where's the beef?" or Ford Truck's "like a rock." Keep in mind, though, that some of non-copyrightable concepts or ideas may be eligible for patent or trademark protection.
  • Statutory Exceptions: In some instances, works that may otherwise be protected may be used without permission because the particular use being made of them falls within a statutory exception to the copyright law. Statutory exceptions include the exception for face-to-face teaching activities of non-profit groups and the exceptions for distance learning activities described in the TEACH Act