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Copyright: Copyright Basics


Information for Faculty and Students

Copyright Basics

Intellectual Property (IP) is the catch-all term for non-physical but identifiable property. Think of the text of a book: it can be presented in various languages or different physical forms, but the underlying content remains the same. This underlying content is intellectual property. In the USA, there are 3 main designations for IP protection that individuals can utilize, these are Copyright, Trademark, and Patent.

Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?

  • Trademarks can be logos or phrases and are generally intended to help an individual tell one brand or corporate entity from another. They must be federally registered and renewed, and expire if they are not renewed. For example, the Cornell seal is trademarked by Cornell, and cannot be used without Cornell’s permission
  • Patents can be for mechanical processes or formulas and are generally intended to limit production to the patent holder. They must be federally registered and renewed, and expire after time. For example, a medication can be patented, and can then only be produced with permission of the patent holder.
  • Copyright can be on any creative expression in a fixed medium. 

For an all-inclusive example, let’s imagine a bottle of Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Corp owns the trademark to the name Coca-Cola, as well as the trademark on the bottle shape, and the graphic representation of their name. These are all things that help distinguish them from other cola brands and define their individual product. Coca-Cola also owns the patent on its formula. This means that no other corporation is allowed to make their cola in quite the same way Coca-Cola makes theirs. Coca-Cola also owns the copyright on their ads and jingles and the creative copy on their bottles. Unless your use meets a Fair Use standard, you are not allowed to use their copy without receiving their permission!


The goal of US copyright law is to promote progress by securing time-limited exclusive rights for creators. (paraphrased from Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution).

What are a creator's exclusive rights?

Currently, in the United States, copyright is automatically applied to content in a fixed form (physical or digital). If you write a book or draw a picture, those things are protected under copyright, and you are entitled to six exclusive rights. 

  • The right to reproduce
  • The right to create derivative works (eg: adapting a book into a play)
  • The right to distribute copies, or transfer ownership of the work
  • The right to perform the work publicly
  • The right to display the work publicly
  • The right to perform the work publicly via digital audio transmission for sound recordings

You are not required to register your copyright with the Copyright Office, however, if you believe that there may be a copyright dispute in the future, you may register with the Copyright Office.

You are not required to include a copyright statement or copyright symbol ©. The purpose of either is to identify the work's copyright holder, which helps those who may like to use the work obtain permission from the owner. 

Exceptions or limitations on a copyright owner's exclusive rights include Fair Use and Reproduction by Libraries and Archives (for an exhaustive list, see US Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107-112.

What cannot be copyrighted?

  • Facts  (basic math, recipes, alphabets, grammatical tropes (eg: “I before e, except after c”), and recipe list of ingredients and steps).

  • Ideas (except for creative media in a fixed format)

Content provided by Cornell University under the CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons License with minor edits for brevity. 

Creative Commons License

Director of Library Services

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Tiffanie Wick

Library 209

Information contained in this guide is educational in nature and is not intended as legal advice.

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