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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.

Quick Reference: Infringement

You see that your work is being shared or sold without your permission, but the legal process seems daunting. What are some simple first steps?

Consider exceptions

There are exceptions to your copyright protections, so first ask yourself if one of these might apply. For instance, if you see someone has adapted a chart from your research article and incorporated into their own, it's possible the author is relying on fair use. 

Send an email

This issue comes up frequently on sites where many people are sharing or selling content. A student may have posted your course materials to a public website, or your thesis might be for sale on Amazon without your permission. You can send what is called a "takedown request" via email or the contact form. Especially when it's clear that you own the copyright, sites will often remove the infringing content.

Ask for attribution

Even if someone is using your work legally by relying on exceptions like fair use, ethically they should still give you credit! Always feel free to contact the person or organization and ask that your name be included as the creator. 

In the Weeds: U.S. Copyright Laws

Below is a list of major copyright legislation in the United States with links to the full text.

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

Copyright protection is automatic and begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” 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. 

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, meaning it may be legally shared, copied, and adapted without permission. For older works created in the United States, cessation of copyright protection and passage into the public domain depends on a variety of factors. See the Cornell Public Domain Chart or the Public Domain tab of this guide for more information.

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