Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright Law

Everything you ever wanted to know about copyright law but didn’t know to ask

( You can also see our 25+ Copyright FAQ Video series by clicking here!)

Why should anyone care about copyright law? Even if the only creative work you’ve ever done is upload your profile picture to Facebook, surprise! Your life has been affected by copyright law.

If you’re an artist or journalist who has asked the questions, “How can I get people to see my work?” or “How can I make money off of my work?” it may be helpful to take a look at this guide.

If you’re just an average person who is afraid of getting in trouble for downloading the wrong file, or uploading the wrong video to YouTube, it might also be helpful.

If you’re starting a business and you’re trying to figure out some of the legal issues that may affect your website, marketing materials, and promotional videos and photos, checking out this guide would be a great idea.

What you’ll find below is a plain English summary of U.S. copyright law along with answers to frequently asked questions about the practical ways the law affects your creative work. It’s written in an easy-to read manner, so even people without any legal training won’t have trouble understanding it. That said, we’re always looking for ways to improve it, so if you have suggestions, definitely include them in your comments.

You can read this guide from start to finish like a book, or if you have specific issues, you can consult the table of contents and skip through to the most relevant topics.

Table of Contents

I. What is copyright law, who created it, and why do people think we need it?
II. What can and can’t be copyrighted?
III. How do you get a copyright?
IV. Now that I have the copyright to something, what does this allow me to do?
V. How long will my copyright last?
VI. How do I make money off of my art, music, or other copyrighted work?
VII. How do I figure out if something is copyright protected or public domain?
VIII. How can I get permission to use someone else’s copyrighted work?
IX. Are there easier alternatives than copyright?
X. What can I do if someone is trying to use my copyrighted work without permission?
XI. I’ve been caught using someone else’s copyrighted work without permission, what can I do?
XII. What is Fair Use? Does fair use allow me use copyrighted work for free and without permission?
XIII. What is a derivative work? Can I make something new out of someone else’s work?


Frequently asked questions

I. What is copyright law, who created it, and why do people think we need it?

Why does the United States have copyright laws?

Who is hurt by copyright infringement?

What are the big problems with the copyright laws in the US?

Does the expansion of copyright laws help or hurt consumers?

Why do some people choose to give away their copyrighted material instead of trying to make money off of it?



II. What can and can’t be copyrighted?

Is a web address (a URL) subject to copyrights?

Are facts copyrighted?

Can you copyright clothing designs?

Are clipart images copyrighted?
 

III. How do you get a copyright?

What are the benefits of federal registration?

How can you find out if a work has an official copyright with the US Copyright Office?

How do I copyright the book I wrote?

What types of things are protected by copyright?

If I pay someone to create something for me, do I own the copyright to the work?

Do I own the copyright to the blogs that I write for my job?

What is needed to credit copyright holder properly?

How do you copyright your music?

Who owns the copyright of a song that I co-wrote with someone else?

Are there any legal issues that might arise from writing a song with another person?

How are music royalties given?

Who owns the copyright to a song?

How much does it cost to register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office?

Do you have to register a copyright for your work to be protected under copyright law?

Can I register my work myself to avoid having to pay a lawyer?

Does software labeled as freeware have a copyright?

What is required from open source licenses?
 


IV. Now that I have the copyright to something, what does this allow me to do?


What rights does a copyright holder have?

Is it legal to record a cover of someone else’s song?
 

V. How long will my copyright last?

What happens to a copyright when the copyright holder dies?

Can you copyright a work after the original copyright expires?

Do I need to make a notice on all of my work that it’s copyrighted to be legally protected from people copying it?

What can't be copyrighted?

What is the symbol for copyright?

 

VI. How do I make money off of my art, music, or other copyrighted work?

How do you get the rights to play music that has a copyright?

What is required from open source licenses?

Can I sell the commercial software that I create using open source code?

What should I do if I have already created commercial software based on open-source code?

What is a copyright assignment?


VII. How do I figure out if something is copyright protected or public domain?

Why would a book not have a copyright date? Does that mean it's public domain?

What are some examples of public domain?

What movies are in the public domain?


What TV shows are in the public domain?

Are cancelled stamps in the public domain?

Are mugshots in the public domain?

Is The Wizard of Oz in the public domain?

Are historical speeches in the public domain?

Is the President’s inaugural speech in the public domain?


VIII. How can I get permission to use someone else’s a copyrighted work?


How do you find out who owns a copyright?

How do I find out who owns the copyright in a book?

How can you find copyright info of a book?

Can the same book have multiple copyright dates?

Is a copyright date the same as a publication date?
 

IX. Are there easier alternatives than copyright?

Are Wikimedia Commons images copyrighted?

What are websites where can I download copyright-free songs?

Are there any sites that I can legally download music and movies from?
 

X. What can I do if someone is trying to use my copyrighted work without permission?


What should I do if suspect someone is infringing on my copyright?

How do I report copyright infringement on YouTube?

What are the penalties for false copyright claims?
 

XI. I’ve been caught using someone else’s copyrighted work without permission, what can I do?


Instead of copying something directly, I spent a lot of time remaking it myself. Is that a way to get around copyright laws?

What is the penalty for copying someone’s work without permission?

What is copyright infringement?

Is it legal to download works from peer-to-peer networks and if not, what is the penalty for doing so?

Can I go to jail if I am accused of copyright infringement?

Can you sue someone for copyright infringement if your work is not federally registered beforehand?

How much can a musician borrow from another person’s music in his or her own song?

When do you give attribution?

Is downloading Morpheus a copyright issue?

What legal consequences can there be for illegally downloading movies?

What can happen to someone if they get caught illegally copying or distributing copyrighted material?

Is watching streaming movies legal?

Is it considered copyright infringement if you sang someone else's song but gave them credit for it?
 

XII. What is fair use? Does fair use allow me to use copyrighted work for free and without permission?


How much of another person’s work can I use and still be protected by fair use?

What percentage of a design must be changed to avoid copyright infringement?

Who is protected by fair use?

Is permission required to use copyrighted material of others?

Can I use portion of a copyrighted song in my own song or podcast?

Is it legal to base your site's template on another website?
 

XIII. What is a derivative work?


Can I use someone else’s characters in my new original story?

Can I write a screenplay based on a book that I didn’t write?

Can I write the screenplay for the sequel to a movie if I didn’t write the original movie?
 

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