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Copyright Overview

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, US Code) to the authors of original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Copyright is the right of an author, artist, composer or other creator to control the use of his or her work by others.

For a work to be protected by copyright law, it must be an idea that has been expressed and fixed in some sort of medium. It must be:

  • Original: To qualify as original, the work must be created independently and must have “at least a modicum” of creativity.
  • A work of authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, as well as many other types of creative works.
  • Fixed: A work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" by or under the authorization of the author. Writing a work on paper or on a computer hard drive, recording a work on tape, and sculpting a work out of marble all satisfy this requirement. An unrecorded improvisation (e.g., in music or dance) would not satisfy this requirement.

What is not protected by copyright protect?

US copyright does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” It also does not protect works prepared by an officer or employee of the US Government as part of that person's official duties.

What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing?

Subject to certain limitations, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  •  reproduce the work by making copies of it;
  •   distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, donation, rental, or lending;
  •   prepare new works derived from the original (for example, a novel adapted into a play, or a translation, or a musical arrangement); and
  •  publicly perform or display the work.

Who owns the copyright?

As a general rule, the initial owner of the copyright is the person who does the creative work. 

Copyright can be sold or transferred if the original author so chooses. Generally copyright in work created by an employee acting within the scope of employment is owned by employer. In the case of a freelancers whose contract  specifies a “work made for hire”, the copyright holder is the person that contracted the works creation.

How does a work become copyrighted?

In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright.

When do copyrights expire, and how can I determine if an old work is still covered by copyright?

The basic term of protection for works created today is for the life of the author, plus seventy years. In the case of "works made for hire", copyright lasts for the lesser of either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation of the work. The duration rules for works created before 1978 are altogether different, and foreign works often receive distinctive treatment. Not only is the duration of copyright long but the rules are fantastically complicated.  The Duration of Copyright circular is available from the US Copyright Office.

(Content on this page has been adapted from,,

Copyright Terms and Duration

How long does copyright last? Copyright duration can depend on a variety of factors. Below are a few guidelines and tools to help you determine whether or not a work is still protected under copyright.

Expansion of U.S. Copyright Term

The United States has expanded the U.S. Copyright Term six times since it was enacted in 1790, so the duration of copyright on the work will depend on when it was created. The chart below should help to sort out how long the copyright duration will last based on the year the work was created.

Duration of Copyright Term in Years based on Acts of 1790, 1831, 1909, 1962-1974, 1976, and 1998










©2008 Tom Bell  

Public Domain or Copyright Protected (by year of creation): The American Library Association's Digital Copyright Slider below can help you determine whether or not a work is in the public domain or covered by copyright based on the date of first publication.

Digital Copyright Slider

International Public Domain: The Public Domain Calculator below can help you to determine whether or not a work created outside of the U.S. falls within the public domain of use.

Out of Copyright: Public Domain Calculator

Copyright Renewal: In some circumstances or time periods, the copyright of a work may have been renewed. To find out more about copyright renewal and to search Stanford's Copyright Renewal Database, follow the link below.

Stanford's Copyright Renewal Database

Public Domain

Copyright Term and Public Domain

Public Domain Flow Chart and Handbook (University of California)

(Adapted from WSU Ablah Library, 2016)