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What does copyright law protect?

The federal Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. §101 et seq.) applies to a wide range of creative, intellectual and artistic forms, commonly referred to as "works." It protects written works such as books, articles, poems, plays and theses. It protects fine arts such as paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs. It protects motion pictures, choreography, musical compositions and sound recordings. It also protects industrial designs such as architectural drawings and engineering plans. In the digital age, it has come to protect computer software code.

The Copyright Act does not protect names, titles, short phrases or listings such as ingredients, recipes, labels or formulas. Although those things may not be covered by the Copyright Act, some of them may be protectable as trademarks or they may be patentable. Others may rise to the level of a trade secret that is entitled to protection.

A copyright holder has exclusive rights in the work that only they can enforce. The exclusive rights that typically attach to the holder of a copyright are:

  • to produce copies or reproductions of the work, and to sell or authorize others to use those copies;
  • to import or export the work;
  • to create derivative works, which are works that adapt or revise the original work;
  • to perform or display the work publicly;
  • to sell or license these rights to others;
  • to transmit or display the work over the internet, by radio or video.

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