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Copyright on Campus: Copyright Law Basics

Information and resource guide for those interested in how copyright affects teaching, learning, research, and scholarly publishing.

Copyright Tools

Listed here are various tools and charts developed by libraries and copyright scholars that can help determine whether an item is protected by copyright and how copyrighted works can legally be used in teaching or in the creation of new works.

U.S. Copyright Laws

Below is a list of major copyright legislation in the United States with links to the full text. There have been other enactments that have amended portions of the Copyright Act, including the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, that are not listed below but are incorporated and referenced within the larger U.S. Copyright Act.

The Rights of Copyright Holders

The Copyright Act grants creators protection in their works by bestowing upon them a bundle of exclusive rights with respect to their works: 

  • The right to reproduce/copy the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works (e.g. translations)
  • The right to distribute copies of the work by sale or lease or other transfer of ownership
  • The right to publicly perform the work
  • The right to publicly display the work
  • The right to perform audio works publicly by digital means

Under the current law, copyright protection is automatic and begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” See the chart below for the types of original works that are protected by copyright law. Copyright protection does not require any form of copyright notice or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, although affixing a notice and registering a work enhances protection of the owner’s rights. Further, registration within 90 days of publication/creation is a prerequisite to a claim for damages in the event of infringement. There is a nominal fee for registration, and a copy of the work must be deposited with the Copyright Office.

Ordinarily, a claim for copyright infringement arises when an encroachment upon one or more of the following exclusive rights belonging to the author or creator occurs. These exclusive rights, however, are subject to certain exceptions set out in the Copyright Act. Some of these exceptions are: Fair Use (§107 of the Copyright Act), preservation by libraries and archives (§ 108 of the Copyright Act), and performance and display of works in an educational setting (§110 of the Copyright Act). Please visit the other sections of this Guide to learn more about these and other exceptions.

What is Protected by Copyright?

Not all types of works are entitled to copyright protection. See the (nonexhaustive) table below:

Copyrightable Works

Non-Copyrightable Works

Literary Works

Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g. ideas)

Musical works (including accompanying lyrics)

Short phrases, slogans, commercial symbols/colors (however, these may be protected by trademark law)

Dramatic works (including accompanying music)

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration

Choreographic works and pantomimes (must be fixed in a tangible form, e.g. recorded or notated)

Works consisting entirely of common data (e.g. calendar, government weights/measures charts) or entirely of facts (although creative assembly of facts can be subject to copyright, the facts themselves cannot)

Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

Spontaneous speeches that have not been formally fixed into a tangible form

Motion pictures and other A/V works

Spontaneous musical or choreographic works

Sound recordings

Federal government documents (mostly)

Architectural plans

 

Computer programs

 

(adapted in part from the U.S. Copyright Office "Copyright Basics" circular)

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyright protection does not last forever. For new works created in the United States, protection begins with creation of the work and lasts 70 years after the date of creation. At that time, the work passes into the public domain. For older works created in the United States, cessation of copyright protection and passage into the public domain depends on a variety of factors. The chart below provides some basic guidelines for determining the copyright statuts of works created in the United States. See the Cornell Public Domain Chart or the Public Domain tab of this guide for more information.

DATE of WORK PROTECTED FROM TERM of PROTECTION
Created Jan. 1, 1978 or later Moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression

Life + 70 years. If work is of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation

Published before Jan. 1, 1923 Work is in the Public Domain None
Published between 1923-1963 When published with notice

28 years + possibility of renewal for 67 years. If not renewed, it is in public domain.

Published between 1964-1977 When published with notice

28 years for 1st term + automatic renewal for 67 years

Created before Jan. 1, 1978 but never published

Jan. 1, 1978, which is the effective date of the current Copyright Act

Life + 70 years, or Dec. 31, 2002,  whichever is greater.

Created before Jan. 1, 1978 but published between then and
Dec. 31, 2002

Jan. 1, 1978, which is the effective date of the current Copyright Act Life + 70 years, or Dec. 31, 2002,  whichever is greater.
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