What Does Copyright Law Protect?

Copyright law protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, audiovisual and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. However, copyright law does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. Copyright law also does not protect individual words, short phrases or titles— for example, a brand slogan or a band name.

A non-exhaustive list of what can be protected by copyright includes:

  • Literary Works: This category of works includes things like novels, poems, short stories, periodicals, essays, dictionaries, manuscripts, periodicals and articles. It also includes software, such as smartphone apps, video games and software.
  • Musical Works and Any Accompanying Words: This category of works includes any work that consists of musical notes and lyrics in a musical composition.
  • Motion Pictures and Other Audiovisual Works: This category includes, online videos, motion pictures and television shows, video games, and slideshows.
  • Sound Recordings: A sound recording is a work that results from the fixation of sounds without a visual component, whether musical or spoken. This category of works includes music on CDs, podcasts, and recorded speeches.
  • Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works: This category of works includes two- and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, and diagrams.
  • Dramatic Works and Any Accompanying Music: A dramatic work is one in which a series of events is presented to an audience by characters through dialogue and action. This category of works includes plays, operas and musicals.
  • Pantomimes and Choreographic Works: This category of works includes dances.
  • Architectural Works: This category includes not only the architectural plans but also the building and any associated drawings.

Compilation and Derivative Works

In addition to the list of works protected by copyright shown above, there are also certain compilations and derivative works protected under the law.

  • Compilations. A compilation is a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole meets the requirements for copyright protection. This includes:
    • periodicals, anthologies, encyclopedias and other works in which a number of independently copyrightable works are assembled and
    • other works, like directories and databases, that incorporate and assemble pre-existing materials, data or other information that is not independently copyrightable.
  • Derivative Works. A derivative work is a work that is based on one or more preexisting works that has been transformed or modified in some way. For example, an abridged, annotated or revised edition of a book, translations and musical arrangements.

Note, that copyright protection in a compilation or derivative work extends only to the new material contributed by the author of the work and does not extend to either preexisting material included in the compilation or derivative work or any portion of a work that unlawfully incorporates copyrighted preexisting material.

Copyrightability of Creative Works

To learn more about what copyright law protects and does not protect in certain kinds of works, read more in our blog posts about:

To learn more about what copyright law protects and does not protect in works created in certain creative industries and professions, read more in our blog posts about: