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This guide will help you navigate U.S. copyright law in your scholarly activities.

About Copyright

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of laws that offer the copyright owner protection over his or her intellectual property, whether it is published or unpublished. Copyright law often comes into play when people want to use a copyrighted work in some way that encroaches on these owners' rights. Copyright protections give the owner the sole rights to:

  • Reproduce the work;
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • Distribute copies of the work;
  • Display the work;
  • Perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, motion pictures or other audiovisual work. In the case of sound recordings, the owner maintains the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.)

From Copyright Basics, Circular 1, U.S. Copyright Office.

What works are subject to copyright?

Almost all works are copyrighted the moment they are created. This includes articles, songs, pictures, letters, and even memos. While facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, the expression of facts or ideas can. It does not matter if the work is electronic or physical, published or unpublished.

Who owns the copyright of a work?

If a work is published, the publisher often owns the copyright. If you authored an article, check the contract you signed to determine who owns the copyright. Generally if a work is not published, then the copyright belongs to the author; however, if the work was created as a "work made for hire," then the copyright can belong to the author's employer. 

Does a work have to have a copyright symbol to be copyright-protected?

No. Since 1989, a work is no longer required by law to contain a copyright notice in order to receive copyright protection.

What if I want to use a work that is copyright-protected?

Generally, you should get permission to use the copyright-protected work. However, the "Fair Use" clause allows for some uses of a copyright-protected work without first seeking permission. For example, if you are using a copyrighted work to teach a class, review the four factors of fair use to see if it applies.

For some recommendations on how to follow the Copyright Law, please see our Frequently Asked Questions and Best Practices section of this site.

What's the public domain?

The public domain refers to those works that are not copyright protected and can be used without seeking permission. There are a number of ways a work may pass into the public domain, including the following: 

  • Works for which the copyright expired (see this table)
  • Works for which copyright was lost
  • Works by the federal government
  • Works "clearly and explicitly donated to the public domain"

Always check carefully to determine that a particular work really is in the public domain before assuming that you may use it.

Guide Information

Last Updated: Jul 5, 2023 3:54 PM