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Copyright Guide: Copyright and Fair Use Overview

Copyright Definition

Adapted from Black’s Law Dictionary 9th ed.

The right to copy; specifically, a property right in an original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.

U.S. Copyright from Google News

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Copyright provides exclusive rights, under U.S. Law (the 1976 Copyright Act, U.S. code 17) to authors, artists, musicians, and other creators for published and unpublished works.

Copyright law was created "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Tımes to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." (Article 1, Section 8, U.S. Constitution), and the first U.S. Copyright Law, of 1790, provided protection for 14 years with an option to extend for 14 more. However, with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, the term has been extended to the lifetime of the author plus 70 years.

It is the responsibility of the person (and in some cases, their affiliated institution) using a work to maintain compliance with copyright law. Individuals and institutions cannot afford to be uninformed about copyright. According to the University of Texas, Austin Copyright Crash Course:

The penalties for infringement are very harsh: the court can award up to $150,000 for each separate act of willful infringement. Willful infringement means that you knew you were infringing and you did it anyway. Ignorance of the law, though, is no excuse. If you don't know that you are infringing, you still will be liable for damages - only the amount of the award will be affected. Then there are attorneys' fees...


This guide is created to help faculty and staff members navigate the ambiguities of copyright.

Duration of Copyright

How long does a copyright last?

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. 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. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.



What is in the public domain?

As a general rule, works created before 1926 are now in the public domain. For works published after this time, consult the chart updated by the Cornell Copyright Office

What is Eligible for Copyright?

Literary works (includes computer software)

Musical works, including any accompanying words

Dramatic works, including any accompanying music

Choreographic works and pantomimes

Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

Motion pictures and other audiovisual works

Sound recordings

Architectural works


What is Not Eligible for Copyright?

Ideas, methods, processes, or systems

Facts and events

Names, titles and short phrases

Familiar symbols and designs

Works created by U.S. government employees as part of their employment

Information that is common property (calendars, weights and measures, etc)


Listings of ingredients or contents

Works that haven’t been fixed in a tangible form of expression (ie: choreographic works that have not been written down or recorded)

U.S. laws and court decisions

Unoriginal architectural elements (standard configurations of space, common architectural mouldings)

Works in the public domain

Useful articles (automobiles, boats, work tools, elements such as the serrated edge of a knife)