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What is a Derivative Work, and Why should I Care?

Picture of Leonardo's Mona Lisa with mustache and goatee added by Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s derivative work of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa

On occasion I am asked about the extent to which a new work can incorporate elements of a pre-existing work without infringing the pre-existing work’s copyright. To answer such a question, one must understand derivative works.

17 U.S.C. Section 101 says (emphasis added):

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

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