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Copyright law and intellectual property law often overlap. There are many similarities between both types of law. Copyright law is essential because it provides a benefit to people who come up with new ideas. They are encouraged to continue using their creativity to compose or create more works. If you are a creator, it will help to understand the copyright law definition, copyright law in the US, and how copyrights can protect your new ideas.

Who Are the Parties?

There are numerous parties involved in copyright law and intellectual property law. Each party has a distinct role and rights that need to be protected. The following are the two main parties: 

  • Creators: A creator is a person who produces creative work, such as music, films, and computer programs. These people use their creative abilities to come up with new ideas and content. Creators immediately have intellectual property rights and get copyright law protection as soon as their work is in a tangible form. At this point, they can reproduce, distribute, perform, or display their works. Creators generally also have reserved moral rights regarding their works.

  • Copyright holders: Initial creation gives rise to the copyright holder’s role, which can pass to others. When creators sell their work to publishing companies, studios, or producers, the copyright often transfers to the purchaser. The copyright holder’s licensing opportunities can include generating revenue from the work.

Terms To Know

Working with copyright law requires an understanding of the terms that define the protections of intellectual property. Some key terms include:

  1. Public domain: When a work is in the public domain, it can be used by anyone without permission from the creator or previous copyright holder. These works are no longer protected by copyright laws or intellectual property laws. This generally happens when the copyright expires but can also happen if the creator waives their rights to copyright the work.

  2. Fair use: The doctrine of fair use allows the use of certain copyrighted materials to be used without permission of the creator or copyright holder. Usually, the purposes for these items to be used include criticisms, news reporting, research, and education. For example, a news anchor can talk about certain parts of a copyrighted work to provide information to the general public. To determine if fair use is allowed, consider the purpose of using the work, the effect the use of the work has on the market, and the economic viability of the work.

  3. Exclusive rights: These rights are granted to copyright holders, and they may include the rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display the work. Depending on the type of work created, rights will differ and have different effects on the intellectual property holder.

  4. Infringement: The unauthorized use of copyrighted material that violates the exclusive rights of the copyright holder is called infringement. This can lead to legal action and penalties enforced by the copyright holder with assistance from the court in some cases. An example of an infringement is when a new music artist uses a track from a current artist’s song without permission or a license to do so.

  5. License: A license is a legal arrangement for an individual or organization to use copyrighted material under certain conditions. There is a wide variety of options for license types available. A license gives the copyright holder the ability to allow the licensee to use their intellectual property in defined ways.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

In order to obtain a copyright and be protected by copyright law, a person must create a work in a tangible form, using specific skills or mental activity. These items include works of art, written works like books and articles, computer software, graphic designs, film, website content, and musical compositions. Items eligible for protection of intellectual property rights must be the creator’s unique original works.

What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

Some creators cannot claim copyright or intellectual property rights. Ideas, discoveries, theories, or vague concepts generally cannot be copyrighted. Other items that cannot be regulated by copyright law include brand names, slogans, domain names, logos, and titles. Speeches, musical works, and ideas that are not written down in physical form cannot be copyrighted. In addition, a piece of work that is very basic or not original may also not be eligible for copyright. 

The Public Domain

Under federal copyright law, creative works may be in the public domain. When creative works, such as books or movies, are in the public domain, they can be used for public distribution. When a creative work is in the public domain, the work is not covered by intellectual property rights and copyright law. Usually, the work is in the public domain because its copyright has expired or because it was never eligible for protection.

After a work is in the public domain, anyone can use it and distribute it without permission from the original creator. In order to determine if a work is in the public domain, look at the duration of the copyright across all jurisdictions and the original creator of the work. Usually, works created by government entities are part of the public domain sooner. The public domain helps distinguish creative work that is available for use and work that is still protected by the artist. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is intellectual property law, and what is its main purpose?

Intellectual Property (IP) law is the legal principles that control the use and protections of intellectual creations and inventions. It is used to provide creators with the recognition and rights to use their own content. This helps encourage them to continue to innovate and bolsters economic growth and creative freedom. With intellectual property law, creations are protected from unauthorized use, which allows the creators to gain economic benefit from their creations. 


Under the umbrella of intellectual property law in the United States Code (USC), there are different avenues used to protect creative works. These include copyright laws, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and industrial designs. Each of these areas of intellectual property laws applies to and protects different types of ideas. By allowing protection of creative ideas, creators have the freedom to continue coming up with new ideas.

What are the three elements of copyright law?

In U.S. copyright law, there are three main elements. In order to obtain a copyright, a creator must have a work that is original, tangible, and exclusively their own work. A creator must have created the work, and it cannot be substantially similar to other works. The work must also be in a tangible form, such as a written book or written lyrics, not just an idea. Finally, the creator must have exclusive rights to the work, which gives the creator the ability to grant those rights to a new copyright holder for copyright protection. Without these three elements, the work is not eligible for copyright protection under U.S. copyright laws.

What is an example of copyright law?

A very popular example of copyright law is in the music industry. A songwriter creates an original song and records it. At that time, they hold the copyright to the song and have the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, or perform the song. However, since many music artists do not want to or have the time to market or sell their music, they often sell the rights to the song to a music label, which sells and markets the song or the album on the artist’s behalf. Once the music is published, the artist and the music label begin to generate revenue. Generally, the artist is compensated on a per-song-downloaded basis, so the more downloads sold, the more the artist is paid.

Does copyright law apply internationally?

U.S. copyright law applies internationally only to a certain extent due to conventions that are in place with some countries. There isn’t an international copyright law that covers all countries, but there are international treaties and agreements that help to facilitate the protection of creative works around the world.