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The Graduate Health & Life Sciences Research Library at Georgetown University Medical Center

Copyright 101

What is Copyright?

Copyright is world-wide, ubiquitous, and effects all of us. In our digital age, we are both users & creators and copyright laws help balance the rights and responsibilities of both. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO (the leading international copyright organization) "copyright (or author’s right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculptures, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings" (WIPO publications). The Berne Convention is the leading world-wide treaty for copyright and has around 170 members from around the world.

Each country has its own copyright law or laws. The U.S. Copyright Act is the leading document for all things copyright in the U.S. The U.S. Copyright Act was first created in the 1790, as the Copyright Act of 1790, and was developed to protect specific materials such as maps, charts, book, or books (Copyright Act of 1790, 1 Statutes At Large, 124). The original has been redone and remade with the most recent Act of 1973. 

What is Copyright Protection?

What is a "work"?

A "work", as defined in the U.S. Copyright Act, can include literary works, choreography, films, music, computer programs and code, plays, sculptures, paintings, architecture, compilations such as bibliographies or summaries, as well as derivatives or works based off of other works (U.S. Copyright Act 17 U.S.C. 101).

Criteria for a work to be protected?

The three criteria needed for a work to be protected are originality, fixation, and creativity:

  1. Original - Originality means it is a new work and should come from the owner or creator not a copy or scan of a work
  2. Fixed - A fixed work or a "tangible medium of expression" (U.S. Copyright Act 17 U.S.C. 101) could be one that was saved as a digital file on a computer, written down, coded, recorded, born digital, digitized, social media posts, or podcasts
  3. Creative - The work must show a minimal amount of creativity for it to be protected

Is there anything not protected by Copyright?

  1. Facts
  2. Common knowledge 
  3. Ideas 
  4. News


The purpose of this guide is to provide resources and information for resolving copyright questions.  This research guide does not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.

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Katherine Greene
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Associate Director for Resources & Copyright Support

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