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Purpose

This guide provides information and resources on copyright law and how it relates to academic activities such as research, teaching, and publication.

It is a basic introduction to U.S. copyright law -- what it protects, how long it lasts, the rights it grants to authors, and its exceptions and limitations.


The UCC Library supports teaching and learning at the college by providing guidance for faculty, students, and staff on how copyright relates to the creation, use, and sharing of knowledge. Contact UCC librarians with any questions: ucclibrary@umpqua.edu

Copyright is a form of legal protection that provides authors of original creative works with limited control over the reproduction and distribution of their work. It gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in part,
  • distribute copies of the work,
  • publicly perform the work,
  • publicly display the work, and
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations.

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allow limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.

Copyright protects "original works of authorship." To be protected by copyright, a work must be original and recorded. It cannot be copied or expressed without being recorded.

Types of works protected by copyright include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works
  • Dramatic works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

These categories should be viewed broadly for the purpose of registering your work. For example, computer programs and certain “compilations” can be registered as “literary works”; maps and technical drawings can be registered as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”

What is not protected by copyright?

  • Facts, ideas
  • Procedures, methods, systems, processes
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form
  • Titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of lettering or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Works of the United States government
  • Works that have passed into the public domain

Under U.S. law, works are protected by copyright automatically at the time of their creation. You are not required to put a copyright notice on the work (e.g. © 2010 New York University), to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, or to publish the work.

Although providing a copyright notice is not legally required, it can be a good idea to include one anyway if you are making your work publicly available. A copyright notice should provide a way for people who want to use your work to contact you, such as: "© 2010 [name]. For permissions and questions contact [address/email]."

In most cases, the author or creator of the work is the copyright holder unless they have transferred the rights to someone else through a written agreement, such as a publishing agreement.

If the work is created as part of a person's employment, it may be a "work for hire," meaning that the employer is the copyright holder. In the university setting, faculty writings and other "traditional works of scholarship," such as syllabi and lecture materials are typically not considered to be works for hire.

If two or more people together create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.

Under current U.S. law, copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. For works made for hire, the copyright term is either 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

After the copyright term expires, works pass into the public domain, meaning that anyone is free to reproduce, distribute, or otherwise re-use the work.

Depending upon when a work was created, it is subject to different requirements regarding copyright notice and registration, as well as different copyright terms. 

For example, before 1978 U.S. law required that works be published with a notice of copyright to receive protection. Failure to comply with this requirement would result in the work being in the public domain.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain, a guide to copyright duration created by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University, is a comprehensive and useful resource for researching a work's copyright status.

As a general rule, works registered or published in the U.S. before 1925 are in the public domain.

Works that are in the public domain in the U.S. are not protected by copyright because

  1. The author dedicated them to public use;
  2. The copyright term has expired without renewal;
  3. The work is of a type that does not qualify for copyright protection.

You can use any U.S. work in the public domain in any way that you want, as much as you want. They belong to the public. Keep in mind, however, that the requirements for public domain vary by country.

There are several great resources for finding and accessing materials in the public domain:

When is a work in the Public Domain?

Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:

  1. The term of copyright for the work has expired
  2. The author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
  3. The work is a work of the U.S. Government

As a general rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923.

Another large block of works are in the public domain because they were published before 1964 and copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.)

A smaller group of works fell into the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States

This chart shows when a work will pass into copyright.

Copyright Slider Tool

Use the Copyright Slider Tool to determine is a work is still protected by copyright.

The information presented in this guide is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. The content in this guide was adapted from the Copyright guide from NYU Libraries

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License

To cite this LibGuide using APA: Umpqua Community College Library. (Date updated). Title of page. Title of LibGuide. URL

To cite this LibGuide using MLA: Umpqua Community College Library. "Title of Page." Title of LibGuide, Date updated, URL

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