Copyright is a form of intellectual property that is guaranteed by the US Constitution. It ensures a limited monopoly to content creators, securing for them what is known as the bundle of rights. These rights include the right to copy, distribute, adapt, display, or perform the work. Certain exceptions, such as the Fair Use exemption, allow for specific uses of copyright-protected material. You can learn more about the Fair Use Exemption on our Fair Use Page.
Copyright applies automatically; it doesn't need to be registered in order to be legally copyright-protected. The work must be in a fixed format and showcase some originality like a research paper, a stanza of poetry, even an email. The kinds of work that copyright protects includes:
There are some works that are not protected by copyright. These include facts, some works produced by the federal government, titles and short phrases (though these could be trademarked which is another form of intellectual property), works in the public domain, and ideas. Copyright protects the expression of ideas not the ideas themselves.
The length of copyright hasn't been consistent over the years. Currently, copyright lasts for the entire life of the creator and 70 years after their death. This means that The Fellowship of the Ring published by JRR Tolkien would remain copyright-protected until 2043 (which is 70 years after his death in 1973. Sidebar: the UK copyright length is currently the same as the US though with some works they will be different because there is no standardized international copyright law). For more information about copyright terms, see this useful chart created by Cornell University Libraries (pdf).
Works created by William & Mary faculty, staff, and students are governed by the university's Intellectual Property Policy. William & Mary typically allows faculty, staff, and student creators to retain copyright as defined by the policy. This includes content uploaded to W&M's institutional repository, W&M ScholarWorks. (Submitters retain copyright and grant W&M ScholarWorks the non-exclusive right to distribute and preserve the work.)
For additional information on using copyrighted materials in presentations, lectures, etc., review William & Mary's Policy and Guidelines for the Use of Copyrighted Works (pdf).