Media Law Handbook

Copyright Law


4. When does a work become protected?
2. What is intellectual property?

3. What isn’t protected?

Works that are in what is called the public domain are not copyrighted and can be used by anyone for any purpose without permission. As explained previously in this chapter, facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted. Therefore we say they are in the public domain. Also, short phrases, mathematical formulas and most government documents are in the public domain.[9] The public domain also contains works on which the copyrights have expired.

Documents produced by the federal government are in the public domain upon their creation. Generally the law governing copyright and state and local government documents is less clear.  In North Carolina, government documents such as the state constitution, statutes, legislative bills[10] and court rulings[11] are in the public domain. The General Assembly has enacted only two statutes that could be interpreted as allowing state or local government records to be outside the public domain, and one of those statutes governs an agency that is now defunct.[12]

It’s important for journalists to remember that story ideas are not protected by copyright law. That means a rival newspaper, website or broadcast station can use your story idea, the same set of facts and the same sources. What a rival cannot do without violating copyright law is present the story in substantially the same way you did, using your words, your photos or your audio.


[9] 17 U.S.C. § 102(b).

[10] Interview by Kristin Simonetti with Jane Basnight, Reference Librarian,

N.C. Legislative Library (Oct. 11, 2006).

[11] Op. Att’y Gen., Newkirk (March 16, 1994).

[12] The N.C. Real Estate Commission “may claim the copyright to written materials it creates and may charge fees for publications and programs.” N.C. Gen. Stat. §93A-3(f ). The Agency for Public Telecommunications, which was shut down in 2012, had “the powers of a body corporate, including the power to sue and be sued, to make contracts, to hold and own copyrights and to adopt and use a common seal and to alter the same as may be deemed expedient.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-426.11.


4. When does a work become protected?
2. What is intellectual property?

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