What Is Copyright?

Contributor: Jay Gregorio. Lesson ID: 13261

Have you ever heard a song and thought it sounded familiar? Or read something you saw somewhere else before? The more we create, the more we need copyright laws to protect our original works!


Communications, Life Skills

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start
  • Have you ever seen this poster of former President Barack Obama?


Image by Steve Rhodes, via flickr, is licensed under the CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

This now-iconic poster was designed by artist Shepard Fairey during the 2008 presidential campaign. It features a stylized, stencil portrait of Obama in solid red, beige, and blue with the word HOPE.

  • So, what's so interesting about this poster?

Shepard Fairey based his design on an original photograph by Associated Press (AP) photographer Mannie Garcia without first seeking permission.

The AP accused Fairey of copyright infringement; however, he asserted the fair use exception to copyright law, which permits limited use of copyright material, applied.

While neither party was willing to concede officially, they reached an agreement to share the rights to the poster and an undisclosed sum of money.

All original creations such as lyrics, poetry, stories, choreography, art, and photography are protected by copyright.

The dispute between Shepard Fairey and the Associated Press (AP) is just one example of a copyright infringement case claiming the unauthorized use of an original creation.

  • What exactly does the copyright law say?
  • What does fair use mean and how does it work?

Let's find out!

What Is Copyright?

You wrote a compelling novel that is adored by readers everywhere, making you a New York Times bestselling author. (Congratulations, by the way.)

You have just discovered that one of your fans copied a complete paragraph from your book and used it in her new novel without your permission.

  • Can you claim copyright infringement?

The answer is yes, as long as you are able to establish evidence that it was purposely copied without your knowledge and is being used for financial gain.

Copyright law applies to anythng you create and gives you the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce your work
  • distribute your work
  • display your work publicly
  • modify, adapt, and derive your work

These rights apply only to you unless you willingly give them up, like with a Creative Commons license. It is not legal for anyone to use your work without your expressed permission.

  • Why do you think it matters?

The right to control the distribution of your material is an incentive and a reward. If something you create generates recognition or financial rewards, those should belong to you.

To review, watch Understanding Copyright, Public Domain, and Fair Use from GCFLearnFree.org:

Image - Video

Examples of Copyrighted Materials

  • What are other works or materials that are subject to copyright protection?

Some of the most common types of media or original works that are protected include:

  • Literary Works - novels, short stories, essays, poems, manuscripts, articles
  • Music and Sound Recordings - musical notes, melodies, and lyrics of a song or jingle, operas, musical play, podcast, and recorded speeches
  • Audio-visuals - movies, television shows, online videos, stage plays, video games and slideshows, pantomimes, and choreography
  • Artworks - posters, graphics, fine arts, photographs, maps, diagrams, and sculptures

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are popular brand logos protected by copyright?

There are original and creative works that do not qualify under copyright protection law. These include logos, slogans, tag lines, charts, and symbols. Most of these can be protected under trademark registration, however.

  • How long does a copyright last?

Copyright terms have changed over the years and may in the future. If you create something today, you will own the rights for as long as you live and for 70 years after your death! (So, really, your surviving family will own the rights.)

If you create something with another person, the terms will last 70 years after the death of the last collaborator.

  • What does the copyright law provision for fair use mean?

Fair use means that you can use small amounts of copyright material without the consent of the original creator so long as the purpose is to study, teach, discuss, or comment upon.

Understanding copyright law is easy. When the work isn't yours, don't claim it!

If you would like a more in-depth explanation, you can watch What is Copyright? from the U.S. Copyright Office:

Image - Video

When you are ready, review these fundamental concepts in the Got It? section.

Image - Button Next