What Can Be Copyrighted

by LegalZoom Staff
updated July 15, 2022 ·  3min read

Only original works of authorship may be copyrighted. This means that the original creator of the work or his or her agent is the only one who may obtain a copyright. You cannot take someone else's work and obtain a copyright.

Types of Works

The following types of works are allowed protection under the copyright law:

  • Literary Works. This can include novels, nonfiction works, poems, articles, essays, directories, advertising, catalogs, speeches, and computer programs.
  • Musical Works. This category includes both the musical notation and the accompanying words.
  • Dramatic Works. This type includes plays, operas, scripts, screenplays, and any accompanying music.
  • Pantomimes and Choreographic Works. Popular dance steps are not included in this type of work.
  • Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works. Works included are sketches, drawings, cartoons, paintings, photographs, slides, greeting cards, architectural and engineering drawings, maps, charts, globes, sculptures, jewelry, glassware, models, tapestries, fabric designs, and wallpapers.
  • Motion Pictures and Other Audiovisual Works. These include movies, videos, and film strips.
  • Sound Recordings. This includes recorded music, voice, and sound effects. Thunder, animal noises, and other sounds of nature may be copyrighted by the persons who record them.
  • Compilations. You can put together a collection of existing materials and the collection as a whole can be copyrighted. Some examples would be a book of poems written about trees or a list of the best cancer doctors in the U.S.

Example 1: In the collection of poems you could not use poems that were copyrighted by someone else without first obtaining their permission. However, you could use old poems where the copyright has expired. Your copyright on the collection would not give you exclusive rights to each individual poem, only to the collection as a whole. 

Example 2: In the list of doctors you could not stop someone else from also putting together a similar list. If you put together a list of all the cancer doctors in the U.S., someone could freely copy it because it is a collection of mere facts. By selecting what you call the best ones, you can stop others from copying your list, which is based on opinion, not mere facts.

  • Derivative Works. A derivative work is a work that is based on one or more already existing works, and it is copyrightable if it includes what the copyright law calls an “original work of authorship.” Works such as the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo are in the public domain and may be copied by anyone. However, if someone paints a new version of the Mona Lisa, or takes a photograph of the Venus de Milo, those works may be copyrighted if they took some creativity. An exact photograph of the Mona Lisa or an exact replica of the Venus de Milo are not protectable, but derivations that took creativity (the changes to the painting and the angle and lighting in the photograph) are protectable.
  • Architectural Works. Previously, it was not possible to copyright a building, only the plans used to build it. This led to some interesting lawsuits in which people who copied others' buildings would only be guilty if it could be proved that they copied the copyrighted plans. The Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990 now allows the buildings themselves to be copyrighted. This was done to bring the United States into compliance with the Berne Convention.
  • Semiconductor Chip Mask Works. The Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984 provides protection for the designs of semiconductor chips. Although the protection is somewhat different from a regular copyright, the process and forms are very similar to that for copyrights and the procedure is administered by the Copyright Office. For more information, contact the Copyright Office.
  • Vessel Hulls. The Vessel Hull Design Protection Act of 1998 made possible the copyrighting of the designs of boats. Protection lasts for ten years.
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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.