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Copyright: Copyright

This guide was originally created by Sue Aspley.

For questions regarding copyright and fair use, please contact Denise Gehring.

What is Copyright?

Copyright presents a unique concept of rights, complex at times and ambiguous at others.  It enables either the creator of an original work or the owner of the copyright to control the use of the intellectual rights to the property and prevent others from utilizing the work as they might choose without the specific permission of the owner.  This is a unique property concept in the law normally, the protection afforded property is in a more direct and concrete form such as we are familiar with in real property or personal property.  Copyright essentially is the means to reward creativity by the originator by monetary reimbursement.  The basic reasons for this specialized treatment of particular endeavors are centered on three reasons:

1. To reward the creators of original works for their labor.

2. To promote and encourage the dissemination of creative works to the public.

3. To encourage the access to creative works by the public.

Copyright Law is a balancing of the rights of the creator vs. the public or the user. The copyright holder's interest is weighed along with the public interest in intellectual freedom, freedom of expression and dissemination of information.  Educators and students are both copyright holders and copyright users and need to know their rights in these differing roles.

Definition of Copyright

Section 102(a) Tittle 17, U.S. Copyright Act

Copyright protection subsists, ..., in original works of authorship fixed in any medium of expression, now know or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.  The work must be in tangible form.

Copyright attaches immediately once the work is in tangible form, one no longer has to register to have the umbrella of protection.  One reason to still register with the Copyright Office if you ever wanted to sue and receive damages for copyright infringement the work must be registered.

Three Requirements:

  1. An original work
  2. Work of authorship or creator
  3. Fixed in a tangible medium

Importance of Copyright

It is important to know your rights in regard to copyright laws. By knowing the basic rights one can apply them in a reasonable and hopefully good faith manner.  Knowledge can prevent unnecessary litigation and perhaps even liability.  The full exercise of your rights as either a holder or user is important to promote intellectual as well as academic freedom.  Knowledge of copyright will help us manage these resources better.

Exclusive Rights of Copyright Holder

United States Copyright Act,  17 U.S.C. § 106

  • Reproduce (photocopying, scanning, downloading).
  • Public Display (showing a copyrighted work on multiple work stations in the lab)
  • Public Performance (singing a song to a class, playing a DVD).
  • Derivative Works (writing a musical based on your book or play developing a TV show).
  • Public Distribution (similar to publication, includes the circulation of unpublished literary content say a diary).

U.S. Constitution

Our founding fathers were aware of the history of English copyright law up to that time.  At the drafting of our foundation documents copyright was deemed a service area of such importance that it was placed in the Constitution.  Even though the existing states had some laws on the books at that time it was thought it would be better for the country in the future to have one uniform law on copyright and not a hodge podge from the states. On this topic we should speak with one voice at the national level.


Art. I § 8. Cl.8

The Congress shall have the power ... to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

U.S. Code

Title 17 ------ United States Code  Copyright

Chapter 1 Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright
Chapter 2 Copyright Ownership and Transfer
Chapter 3 Duration of Copyright
Chapter 4 Copyright Notice, Deposit, and Registration
Chapter 5 Copyright Infringement and Remedies
Chapter 6 Manufacturing Requirements
Chapter 7 Copyright Office
Chapter 8 Proceedings by Copyright Royalty Judges
Chapter 9 Protection of Semiconductor Chip Products
Chapter 10 Digital Audio Recording Devices and Media
Chapter 11 Sound Recordings and Music Videos
Chapter 12 Copyright Protection and Management Systems
Chapter 13 Protection of Original Designs

Duration of Copyright

Works before 1923 are in the Public Domain.

Published between 1923-1978 - in general 95 years from the publication.

Published under the 1976 Copyright Act ---Created after 12/31/1977---Author's life plus 70 years OR
     if corporate, anonymous, pseudonymous; lesser of 95 years from publication or 120 years.

**Public Domain --- general is the area wherein materials are freely available, usable by anyone; no one owns it.

Web Tools to Calculate Duration


Lolly Gasaway's Chart on Copyright Duration


By Lolly Gasaway University of North Carolina

Definition: A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and
which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:
(1) the term of copyright for the work has expired; (2) the author failed to satisfy statutory
formalities to perfect the copyright or (3) the work is a work of the U.S. Government.

Created 1-1-78 or after When work is fixed in tangible medium of expression Life + 70 years1(or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation2
Published before 1923 In public domain None
Published from 1923 - 63 When published with notice3 28 years + could be renewed for 47 years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. If not so renewed, now in public domain
Published from 1964 - 77 When published with notice 28 years for first term; now automatic extension of 67 years for second term
Created before 1-1-78 but not published 1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright Life + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is greater
Created before 
1-1-78 but published between then and 12-31-2002
1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright Life + 70 years or 12-31-2047 whichever is greater

1 Term of joint works is measured by life of the longest-lived author.
2 Works for hire, anonymous and pseudonymous works also have this term. 17 U.S.C. § 302(c).
3 Under the 1909 Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between 1-1-78 and 3-1-89, effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, retained copyright only if efforts to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405. (Notes courtesy of Professor Tom Field, Franklin Pierce Law Center and Lolly Gasaway)

LOLLY GASAWAY Last updated 11-04-03
Chart may be freely duplicated or linked to for nonprofit purposes.No permission needed.
Please include web address on all reproductions of chart so recipients know where to find
any updates.

Contact Us and Research Help

History of Copyright

U.S.copyright law's foundations are found in English law.  Early English copyright law could be considered a form of censorship.  The crown feared that anyone who had access to a printing press could print materials which would undermine the government.  To ensure that this threat to the crown did not happen, under an act of the crown a special licensing act was enacted.  The licensing act decreed a special license was necessary to publish a work.  This license could only be obtained from the Royal Stationer's Company.  Thus through this enactment this license ensured a monopoly for the Royal Stationer's Company.  The ability to publish works was limited to a select few.  Authors were thus limited in their ability to disseminate their works and the public was blocked from access, a very effective type of censorship.

Due to this disparity and inequity there was a strong desire to change the law.  This became possible when the licensing act expired.  It was not renewed.  A new law was enacted in 1710, the Statue of Anne was enacted called more specifically "A bill for the encouragement of learning and for securing the property of copies of books to the rightful owner thereof".  This liberated the law and destroyed the printer's monopoly and at the same time ensured authors could maintain a copyright to their work for a 14 year period.  This was the first true copyright act ever passed in the world.

What Works Are Protected?

  • Literary works including computer programs
  • Musical works (including accompanying words)
  • Dramatic works (including music)
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audio-visual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works
  • Compilations, collective and derivative works.

What is Not Protected?

Section 102(b) Of Copyright Act

  1. Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression.
  2. Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols or designs.
  3. Listings of ingredients or contents.
  4. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, devices.
  5. Standard calendars, rulers, lists or tables taken from public domain documents.
  6. Government works.

Sources of Legal Information

United States Courts

United States Federal Court

Court Decisions or opinions interpret the statutes or code.  The statutes or code are very general, therefore we look to the courts for clarification.  These are our best sources for guidance and our most helpful resource for complex issues.

Public Domain

"Public Domain" the beauty of this designation is that: it belongs to the public meaning the material is free for you to use.  Yes I said it is free after all the exclusive rights, limitations and restrictions we actually come to an area of copyright which is user friendly.  If a resource falls into the public domain that means you do not have to obtain a license to use it or obtain permission.  The material is no longer protected by copyright or never was protected by copyright.

This is not without some rules and these will be set forth below.

Briefly the works found in the PUBLIC Domain:
We have a period between 1923 until 1989 wherein there were changes to the law.  Whether a work falls in the public domain will be dependent on the rules in force at the time and also whether said rules were met.

1.   Works which were created before 1923 are definitely considered in.
Please note that: A work which was created between 1923 through 1978 and which did not carry a copyright notice is now in the public domain.

Two critical dates to watch before 1923 and before 1978.
2.   Works created before 1978 for which the copyright was not renewed.
(These works differ from  those in category one in that when originally created a copyright was obtained but the copyright holder permitted the copyright to expire).
3.   If a work created between 1923 and 1978 did carry a copyright then it will be protected from the effective date of the copyright for 95 years.
4.   As of January 1 1978, works which meet the requirements in tangible form, original, by the creator automatically have copyright without registration.  It is usually protected 70 years from the death of the author.
5.   Beginning, March 1, 1989, all works both published and unpublished are protected 70 years from the death of the author.  
6.   Normally US government works.
7.   Works in which the creator or author has placed the work in the public domain.

For more detailed information look at these sources:
The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, James Boyle, 2010
The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More, Stephen Fishman, 2012

Library Resources About Copyright