The World Intellectual Property Organization, a part of the United Nations, defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind.” Such creations include novels, poems, news stories and photographs. A piece of intellectual property is unique and eligible for special treatment under U.S. federal law. That means if you use someone else’s creative work without permission or without paying for it, you may be violating copyright law.
The concept of intellectual property is grounded in the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” That provision sets out the goals of copyright law as both protecting the rights of authors of original works and fostering creativity by others.
Congress passed the first U.S. copyright law in 1790. The law protected books, maps and charts for a renewable term of 14 years. Later, musical compositions joined the list of protected works. Inventions such as photography also required the government to expand the scope of copyright protection, and technological advances such as the Internet continue to raise new copyright questions and to require changes in the law.
In 1976 Congress adopted the most recent major overhaul of copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1976. The statute grants copyright holders this bundle of rights:
To reproduce the work
To prepare derivative works based on the original
To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending
To display the copyrighted work publicly
To perform the copyrighted work publicly
What is protected by copyright?
Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression . . . from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.” This definition includes books, newspapers, magazines, movies, screenplays, songs, drawings, graphics, paintings, photographs, sculptures, annual reports, newsletters, computer programs, animations, TV shows, podcasts, blogs and Web pages. The requirement of “originality” does not mean that a work has to be special or groundbreaking. An author need only have independently created the work with some measure of intellectual effort.
Copyright law protects the specific ways in which ideas or facts are expressed, not the facts or ideas themselves. This means that no one can “own” the facts described in a news story or the artistic concept reflected in a photograph. What the copyright holder controls are the words used to communicate the facts or the photograph that communicates the artistic concept.
If a work is copyrighted, you cannot use it unless you either get permission or use the portion of it to which you have the right of “fair use” (more on that later). In order to get proper permission, you will have to locate the owner of the copyright, obtain verbal or written permission and, in most cases, pay whatever license fee the owner demands.
Be aware that the copyright owner might not be the person offering you a work to copy. For example, a person who gives you a book so you can copy text from it probably is not the copyright holder and thus does not have legal authority to grant permission for copying. A person who buys a book or other copyrighted work does not buy the copyright. Similarly, a photograph posted on a Facebook page probably belongs to the person who took the photograph – and that might be a friend or relative of the person on whose Facebook page the photo resides.
 U.S. Const. art. I, § 8.
 1 Stat. 124 (1790).
 4 Stat. 436 (1831).
 13 Stat. 540 (1865).
 17 U.S.C. § 101 et. seq.
 17 U.S.C. § 102.
 Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., 188 U.S. 239, 23 S. Ct. 298 (1903).