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What is copyright?

Copyright is a system of balance between the rights of a creator and the rights of society to benefit from that creator’s work. The United States’ current system of copyright was developed to incentivize creation of original works by providing authors the means of controlling and profiting monetarily from their works for a limited period of time. (Pallas Loren, 2000). Copyright, in its earliest form, literally granted the creator of the work to make actual physical copies since it was through the sale of those copies that creators were allowed to profit. Today our application and understanding about copyright extends far beyond the simple act of making copies and strives to protect the rights of the creator while enabling society to be enriched by these creations.

Regardless of occupation, most individuals will encounter issues related to copyright at some point in their lives. Whether authoring a paper for publication, sharing or composing music, taking a photograph or using images as part of another work, copyright is there, a default to protect society’s individual “creations of the mind” (“What is Intellectual Property?,” n.d.)

The United States Constitution states that copyright was established, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (U.S. Const. art. I, § 8) The Copyright Act of 1976, Title 17 of the United States Code, revised United States copyright to protect “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression…” (17 U.S.C. § 102).

“Original” works are works that have not been copied from another work and include at least a minimal degree of creativity (Bonner, 2006). A “work” can be a literary creation, musical composition, dramatic work, dance, visual work, audiovisual works, recordings, software, or architecture.

Works that have not been fixed in a tangible medium–for example, an impromptu or improvisational speech or performance that has not been written or recorded (Crews, 2006)–are not covered under copyright protection. Nor are ideas, procedures, methods, and systems.

Copyright is automatically applied to works that meet the requirements at the moment that they are “fixed” (or recorded). A work does not have to be published to receive copyright protection, nor is a creator required to register the copyright to his or her work (unless so desired) (United States Copyright Office, 2009).

Copyright owners have the right to reproduce their work, create derivative works, distribute copies of their work, perform their work publicly, and display their work publicly (United States Copyright Office, 2009). The duration of these rights depends on the age of the work and the copyright law (whether U.S. or that of another nation or entity) that applied when the work was created.

Sometimes portions of copyright-protected works can be reproduced or distributed by others under the fair use provisions of U.S. Copyright Law. (See Fair Use.)

Copyright owners may also grant licenses for others to reproduce and reuse works for which they own copyright. Some licenses allow the general public to reuse or reproduce copyright-protected works without asking for permission. (See "Creative Commons Licenses" in the Scholarly Communication Glossary.)

Copyright law is often understood to protect a work for the lifetime of the author plus an established number of years—but this by no means a universal truth. Just because an author is deceased does not mean the author’s creations are out-of-copyright. Additionally, just because someone is an author of a work does not mean he or she is the copyright owner. Authors sometimes transfer their copyright to publishers when agreeing to the publication of their works. (For more information on this topic, see "Author Rights and Responsibilities" in the Scholarly Communication Glossary.)

In the United States, it is generally understood that for most newly published works (i.e., those created in or after 1978), current copyright law protects a work for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years (Crews, 2006). Registering the work and placing a copyright notice on it are no longer required to receive copyright protection (Crews, 2006).

Upon passage in 1998 of the Copyright Term Extension Act (known informally as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act), copyright protection was extended for many works published between 1923 and 1978. The copyright status of these works depends on a number of factors: Whether the work was published with or without a copyright notice, whether the work was published with or without copyright registration, or whether the copyright was renewed. Thus in some cases, copyright protection may last for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (Russell, 2004).

After a work passes out of copyright protection, it enters into the public domain, a commons where the right to use works belongs to the public and copyright permissions no longer apply (“Stanford Copyright & Fair Use – The Public Domain,” n.d.). In the United States, works published before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain (Russell, 2004).

Determining the copyright protection status of a work is complicated. See our Copyright and Intellectual Property Toolkit for further assistance.


Anon. “What Is Intellectual Property?”

———. “U.S. Copyright Office – Copyright Law: Chapter 1.”

———. “Stanford Copyright & Fair Use – The Public Domain.”

———. “Digital Copyright Slider.”

Bonner, Kimberly M., ed. 2006. The Center for Intellectual Property Handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Crews, Kenneth D. 2006. Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators: Creative Strategies and Practical Solutions. 2d ed. Chicago: American Library Association.

Pallas Loren, Lydia. 2000. “The Purpose of Copyright.” Open Spaces Magazine.

Russell, Carrie. 2004. Complete Copyright: An Everyday Guide for Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association.

U.S. Const. art. I, § 8

United States Copyright Office. 2009. “Copyright Basics.”