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Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Copyright rights exist by the creation of “original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” To be an “original” work, the work must have a minimum level of creativity (e.g., facts and data are not typically protected through copyright law). A copyright owner has exclusive rights to their work and only the owner, or those authorized by the owner, may copy, distribute, display, or perform the work, and create derivative works (modifications).

What it protects

Copyright law protects the expression of the work, not the idea (ideas are covered by patent law). Copyrightable subject matter may include:

  • digital media
  • software
  • certain databases
  • literary works
  • images/videos
  • music

Fair use

There are some important exceptions which allow others to use your works without your permission, most prominently “fair use” of works for purposes like criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, and research. Determining whether a particular use of another’s copyrighted works constitutes “fair use” can be a difficult analysis and should be considered carefully. See UW Copyright Connection for more info.


As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For works “made for hire,” e.g. by an employee for their employer, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. Therefore, copyright rights may last many years beyond the term of patent rights if your innovation includes available copyright and patent protection.

How to manage copyright rights

Effective, early management of copyright rights can be critical to a smooth transition of your work from academia to commercialization. Licensing opportunities may be stalled or thwarted if UW does not have the necessary rights to license/distribute your work to third parties, which may affect ultimate success and revenue back to UW.

Some suggestions are:

  • Try to determine/clarify ownership of works before they are created (applicable contracts, policy, etc.)
  • Assume you need permission from third party copyright owners to use their work
  • Keep records regarding third party content: where you obtained the content, from whom, and track permissions sought and obtained
  • Always provide proper copyright notice. Notice is not required, but it is highly recommended to include it on works of authorship. For UW-Owned and UW-Sponsored copyrightable works, an example of proper notice is “© [year of first publication] University of Washington”, for example:© 2020 University of Washington


Copyright rights exist at the moment the work is created and fixed in a tangible form (even if on your hard drive). Thus, your work does not need to be officially registered with the US Copyright Office to enjoy copyright protection. An official registration provides certain legal presumptions and greater remedies if a third party infringes your work. CoMotion  may file a copyright registration application in your work, depending on the circumstances and the type of work. Your Innovation Manager can discuss this option with you.

Federal registration of a copyright is not required to have copyright rights. Federal registration is required to bring an infringement action, however, and it provides specific presumptions and damages. Registration of University materials is not always necessary or appropriate.