Basics

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A copyrighted work is defined as an expression of creativity that shows originality, although it doesn’t have to be unique, and is fixed in some medium so others may experience it. That is, if one can listen to, watch or read it, then the work meets the fixation element. Consult the Copyright Genie to determine if a work you are questioning is copyrightable.

What works are copyrightable? Just about everything.

  • Literary works
  • Musical scores & accompanying lyrics
  • Plays & accompanying music
  • Pantomimes & choreography
  • Pictorial, graphic & sculptural works
  • Motion pictures & other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

What isn’t protected by copyright?

  • Ideas, principles, or methods of operation
  • Basic facts
  • Titles, names, short phrases, or slogans (although the latter may be registered as a trademark)
  • Works that are in the public domain

Copyright protection starts the moment a work is fixed, but how long does it last?

Copyright duration can be quite complex and depends on when a work was created and the country in which it was registered. For a graphic overview of term limits for works registered in the United States, see Peter Suber’s excellent Copyright Term and the Public Domain table. The Public Domain Slider will also give you an idea as to whether a work you want to use may be in the public domain.

Here are a few choice online resources describing copyright basics:
Purdue University Copyright Overview
University of Texas Copyright Crash Course
US Copyright Office Copyright Basics (PDF)

Copyright Research

For specific information about the copyright status of an older work, there are currently two online databases available, as well as the Copyright Card Catalog in the Library of Congress, in which research may be necessary, depending on the date of your item. Briefly, the card catalog contains copyright records spanning registration of works dating from 1790 through 1977. The online catalog is available for works registered or renewed from January 1, 1978, to present.

For additional information on copyright research, visit our Copyright Registration & Research page.

Copyright and Libraries

Use the Section 108 Spinner for initial guidance regarding reproductions made by libraries and archives for their users, as replacement or preservation copies. Section 108 continues to be a hotly contested part of Copyright Law between producers and consumers of copyrighted material because educational use could not be agreed upon in the areas of distance learning, interlibrary loan, and electronic reserves. See US Copyright Office Circular 21 Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) provides information on several copyright and intellectual property issues and cases as they pertain to academic libraries, as well as additional resources. ARL also maintains Know Your Copy Rights, a site dedicated to using copyrighted works in academic settings.

The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) includes representatives from the American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries. Content specifically addresses those groups’ needs and interests.