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Legacy Library

Copyright : Basic Copyright

Useful information regarding copyright considerations.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a series of protections extended to the holder that allow them to control potential uses of their creative works. Copyright law is covered under Title 17 of the United States Code and grants to holders exclusive rights:

  1. to reproduce the copyrighted works in copies or phonorecords;
  2. to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work;
  3. to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  6. in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of digital audio transmission. (17 U.S.C. § 106.)

What's covered by copyright?

Any original content that's created or presented through some kind of tangible medium. Over the years, what can be covered has been understood broadly to include a wide variety of works. The copyright law has identified a number of categories that include:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works. (17 U.S.C. § 102)


What's not covered by copyright?

Ideas, concepts, processes, names, methods, procedures, discoveries or other things that are not conveyed through a tangible medium. Copyright protection is also not extended to works in which the copyright protection has expired or which protections never existed such as things in the public domain or U.S. government publications. (17 U.S.C. § 102.)

Who can get a copyright?

Author or authors of any creative works that appear in a tangible medium are automatically extended copyright protection. If authors create a work as part of their employment then the employer holds the copyright. Copyright holders don't have to formally provide notice or registration for their works. While neither of these things are required,  the United States Copyright Office can register or provide notice alerting others to an authors legal copyright.


How long does copyright last?

At the present time, copyright protection is extended for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works created by companies, or other collective entities, copyright lasts for 95 years after formal publication and 120 years after initial creation. When copyright protections end, the works enter  the public domain. (17 U.S.C. § 302.)

What is in the public domain?

The public domain includes all works not protected by copyright. These would include works never protected by copyright, authors or creators that dedicate their work to the public, and works that have timed out either by expiration or other time constraints. This useful public domain chart provides timetables and other information in determining the extent of copyright for a particular work. 

General resources

U.S. Copyright Office

The website and general information page for the U.S. Copyright Office. This agency administrations the copyright laws of the United States.

Copyright Services

A detailed guide to copyright and related subjects from Cornell University Library. One of the tabs also has a useful public domain chart.

Stanford Copyright Page

A good overview of copyright and fair use from Stanford University Libraries.

Title 17 of the U.S. Code

The full text of copyright and related laws of the United States.

Public Domain Slider

An interesting resource from the American Library Association that can help determine if a work is protected by copyright.

Copyright Questions

A tool that reviews basic copyright from the Copyright Society.

The Copyright Genie

Another resource from the American Library Association that can help with finding if a work still has copyright.