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An easy to understand guide on Copyright.

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What is...

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. 

The protection exists from the moment a work is fixed in a tangible form of expression (from a simple napkin with writing on it, WhatApp voice message, an IM, to more complex items).

It is the right granted by law to an author or creator to control the use of the work created and allows the owner of the copyrighted material to:

  • Make copies (A copy is the reproduction of an original work, here are some examples of what would be considered a "copy": download, PDF email attachment, photocopy or scan, etc.)
  • Distribute copies (including using the internet)
  • Prepare derivatives based on the original work (like a sequel or spin-off)
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

What is protected?

Under the copyright act, section 102, the following is protected:

  • Literature
  • Music including Lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime
  • Dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound recordings
  • Architecture Software


Does copyright protection last forever?

As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

Works published between:

1909-1921  - The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 28-year period. 

1922-1963 - The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 67-year period.

1964-1978 - The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication, with an automatic renewal of an additional 67 years.

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 - The following rules apply to published and unpublished works: For one author, the work is copyright-protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. For joint authors, the work is protected for the life of the surviving author plus 70 years. For works made for hire, the work is protected for 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less. For anonymous and pseudonymous works, the work is protected for 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less. (However, if the author's name is disclosed to the U.S. Copyright Office, the work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.)

What about International Copyright?

Copyright law and duration varies per country. However, several countries have worked together to create international agreements that align policies across borders. Foreign works are, for the most part, protected for the same term as works published within the user's country for all signatories of the Berne and TRIPS agreements. The U.S. is both an adopter of the Berne Convention and a party of the TRIPS Agreement.

What is the Public Domain?

The Public Domain is a state of belonging to the public as a whole and not being protected by copyright law.

Works in the public domain are those for which copyright protection has expired, been forfeited or not applicable. They can be copied, distributed, performed and displayed without seeking permissions or applying to an exception under copyright law.

Examples include:

Expired: Copyright protection for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, first published in 1813, has expired. It is in the public domain.

Forfeit: Copyright protection for Sita Sings the Blues has been forfeited by the creator Nina Paley in a public announcement updated in 2011.

Inapplicable: U.S. Federal Government publications are not granted copyright protection at all. All U.S. Federal Government publications fall immediately into the public domain. (note: publications made by third parties under government contract and by state governments (for example) are considered differently by the law and may be protected by copyright.) 

Some content adopted from USF Copyright Guide.

Copyright law is a sub discipline of intellectual property law and is governed by Title 17 of the United States Code - The Copyright Act.. Title 17 is a federal law and applies to all States. It is meant to protect an author’s (or creator’s) rights to his or her work from unauthorized use by others, while allowing for the promotion of creativity and learning.

Ordinarily, a claim for copyright infringement arises when an encroachment upon one or more of the following exclusive rights belonging to the author or creator occurs:

  • The right to reproduce/copy the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works
  • The right to distribute copies of the work by sale or lease or other transfer of ownership
  • The right to publicly perform the work
  • The right to publicly display the work
  • The right to perform audio works publicly by digital means

These exclusive rights, however, are subject to certain exceptions set out in the Copyright Act. Some of these exceptions are: Fair Use (§107 of the Act), preservation by libraries and archives (§ 108 of the Act), and performance and display of works in an educational setting (§110 of the Act). Please visit the other sections of this Guide to learn more about these and other exceptions.

Not all classes of works are entitled to copyright protection. See the (nonexhaustive) table below:

Copyrightable Works

Non-Copyrightable Works

Literary Works

Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g. ideas)

Musical works (including accompanying lyrics)

Short phrases, slogans, commercial symbols/colors (however, these may be protected by trademark law)

Dramatic works (including accompanying music)

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration

Choreographic works and pantomimes (must be fixed in a tangible form, e.g. recorded or notated)

Works consisting entirely of common data (e.g. calendar, government weights/measures charts) or entirely of facts (although creative assembly of facts can be subject to copyright, the facts themselves cannot)

Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

Spontaneous speeches that have not been formally fixed into a tangible form

Motion pictures and other A/V works

Spontaneous musical or choreographic works

Sound recordings

Federal government documents (mostly)

Architectural plans


Computer programs


Adapted in part from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright protection does not last forever. For new works, protection begins with creation of the work and lasts 70 years after the date of the author-creator. At that time, the work passes into the public domain. For older works, cessation of copyright protection and passage into the public domain depends on a variety of factors. See this chart for more information.  Use the Public Domain Slider to help determine the copyright status of a work that is first published in the United States. 

Information adapted from UF Copyright LibGuide

Can I use Copyright Materials?

Yes! The best ways to use something protected under Copyright include:

  • Link to the material and cite the original source. Linking to an image or public website is not copying.
  • Apply FAIR Use, Section 108 for Libraries, or the T.E.A.C.H. Act for exceptions and limitations of copyright law.
  • Request permission for use.
  • Use the work in accordance with an existing license.  Perhaps the library license allows classroom and Course Reserves use or the work is issued under a creative commons license where the creator has clearly established what others can do with the work.