Creative Works You Can and Cannot Copyright

Copyright symbol in cloudy sky
••• John Lund / Getty Images

A copyright is ownership of an intellectual property that is:

  • an original creation
  • which is in a tangible form, like a book, DVD, or recording. 
  • and which falls within the U.S. Copyright Act and other copyright laws. 

But not every type of original work can be copyrighted.

Creative Works That Can Be Copyrighted 

You can copyright:

  • literary works, including computer programs and other "compilations."
  • online writing, such as a blog or series of articles 
  • musical works, including lyrics
  • pantomimes and choreographic works (if they have been recorded)
  • pictorial works (includes maps and architectural plans), graphics, sculpture
  • movies and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

All works must be preserved in some form in order for the owner to copyright them.

Publication is not necessary for copyrighting, but your work must somehow be preserved or be able to be reproduced, to be copyrighted. The U.S. Copyright Office says you should consider this list in its broadest meanings. It's almost impossible to list all the specific types of works that can be copyrighted.

What Cannot Be Protected

You cannot copyright:

  • Works that are not fixed in some tangible form of expression. For example, if you give a speech and it isn't recorded or if you don't have the speech written out, you can't copyright it.
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans. (You may be able to trademark or service mark these.)
  • Familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents (but a recipe with instructions or directions can be copyrighted
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devises, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • Works that are "common property" and have no original authorship, for example, standard calendars, tape measures and rules, height and weight charts, lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.
  • Works that are in the public domain, for which the copyright has expired. Usually, this refers to works published before 1923. 

Copyrighting Websites and Domain Names

You can copyright original authorship on a website, including the artwork/logo, writing, photos, videos, basically anything on your website that can otherwise be copyrighted. Domain names are not protected by copyright law.

The process for copyrighting online works like websites is a little different from copyrighting a non-changing work. Copyright protection is for a work already in place, while websites are ever-changing. The copyright office says, "...the registration should be limited to the content of the work asserted to be published on the date given on the application." Yes, this means you must continually update your copyright every time you add new information, like blog posts. It is unrealistic, but that's the way it is.