Copyright Law: What You Need to Know

Please note, this content is intended to be informational and not meant to serve as legal advice. If you have a legal question or concern, please seek the counsel of an attorney.


For anyone who works in a creative field, copyright law is a major aspect affecting almost any creative work. Copyright law crosses all entertainment industries – music (with its use of “samples”), digital photography, film and journalism – and knowing the limits of creative production is paramount when pursuing new projects. So here’s a primer covering some of the basic rules of copyright law that you can use when you’re crafting your next big project.

The United States set up copyright law to protect the commercial assets of creative workers as a balance between the rights of commercial organizations and free speech. The original law required that the right to a copyright would dissolve from a creative work a few decades after its initial creation, and the work would become a part of the public domain.

Today, anything published prior to 1923 (with a few exceptions) is considered public domain, which basically means you can do whatever you want with it without needing permission. The only requirement is that you attribute the work to the original creator.

Artists are usually concerned with two things when it comes to copyright law…



The first answer is very hard to give definitively and depends entirely on the reading of the law. For the most part, the answer is no. Sometimes, however, the answer is yes. Part of the answer depends if the new creation is “transformative” enough. Does the new work add something new -- a further purpose or different character than the original? In other words, does the new work act as a substitute or does it duplicate the original use of the copyrighted work? That can be a hard question to answer. Different mediums have different standards, and while sometimes the answer may seem obvious, the courts may ultimately disagree.

Consider the potential copyright problems of Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup”. Warhol didn’t add any particular spin to his print of a clearly copyrighted logo (nor did he ask permission), but he changed the character of the creation by the mere act of deciding to use it as an art piece. Warhol’s purpose – making a statement about art – was completely different than Campbell’s purpose – selling soup, so he didn’t infringe copyright. In fact, the Campbell Soup Company was rather happy with Warhol’s art, and Warhol got a few cases of tomato soup as thanks.

The answer to “what rights extend to my work?” is easier to lay out. Copyright gives a creator of a work six rights over his or her intellectual property (The following text is taken directly from Bryan Carson’s “The Law of Libraries and Archives” through Wikipedia).

  1. To reproduce the work
  2. To prepare derivative works
  3. To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending;
  4. To publicly perform the work, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  5. To publicly display the work, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  6. To digitally transmit sound recordings by means of digital audio transmission.

Finally, here’s a few general tips about copyright law;

  • If you’re creating a work for a particular company, that company owns the work – not you, unless explicitly stated in a “work for hire” agreement.
  • Copying someone else’s words directly without stating that you are doing so is considered plagiarism. The “idea” of a piece can be copied, but the “expression” of that idea is off-limits unless it is made clear that you are copying someone else’s words.
  • Plenty of websites have “free-to-use” images and soundbites. Always be aware of the source of original file before using it in your work.
  • The creative works of animals have no copyrights. So if your monkey takes a selfie, it’s considered to be in the public domain.

Copyright law is much more extensive than these basics laid out here. Every creative person, however, should be aware of the basics of copyright in order to move throughout their careers without legal worries.

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