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J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library


An information guide to U.S. Copyright Law as it applies to the academic environment.

Copyright Defined

Part of United States Intellectual Property law (which protects creations of human intellect as opposed to physical property), copyright affords creators certain exclusive rights over their works for a limited period of time. In the United States protection is automatic and does not require any formal registration - although registration can be beneficial to the copyright holder in cases of infringement (i.e. copyright violation.)

Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. So anyone may write a paper on the topic of wind turbines, but only the paper would be considered an expression of the idea and would be protected by copyright.

Copyright Protection

Copyright protection applies to works of expression that are original (not copies - exact or derivative - of other works), creative (display a minimum degree of creativity, unlike a simple A-Z list), fixed in a tangible medium (in a form that could be copied or reproduced). Examples include:

  • Journal articles
  • Books
  • Movies
  • Audio recordings
  • Presentations
  • Computer code
  • Images (including figures and some data displays)
  • Artworks 

Copyright protection does not apply in the following cases:

  • Facts, Ideas, Concepts, Principles, Discoveries - Not considered property under U.S. Intellectual Property laws
  • Processes, Procedures, Methods, Systems, Inventions - May be protected under other Intellectual Property laws (patents, etc.)
  • Expired works, U.S. Government authored works - Work is in the Public Domain

Copyright Duration

The general rule for works created in or after 1978 is:

  • 70 years after the creator's death (in the case of multiple creators, the rule applies to the last surviving creator)
  • 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation in cases of works-for-hire (corporate ownership)

Works for which copyright has expired enter the Public Domain where they are freely available for use.

Determining whether or not a specific work is protected requires consideration of several factors including the identity of copyright holder, creation and/or publication date, and the circumstances under which the work was created. Cornell University's Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States is a useful tool in determining if a work is still under copyright. Or AskUS for help!

Copyright Holder

Creators (authors, artists, songwriters, photographers, etc.) are the default copyright holders of the works they create. Under certain circumstances creators may relinquish all or some of their rights, including: 

  • Transferring copyright to a journal or book publisher
  • Creating a work under a work-for-hire contract
  • Licensing the work as Open Access
  • Licensing the work to the Public Domain

Exclusive Rights

Copyright holders have the following rights under the law:

  • Copy - right to reproduce the work (whole or in part.)
  • Make derivatives - right to create translations, sequels, adaptations, other works based upon the original
  • Distribute - right to make the work publicly available through sale, loan or gift
  • Perform or display - right to publicly show or perform the work.
  • Permission - right to grant permission for any of the aforementioned.

Library Support

The library provides consultations, workshops, department visits, presentations, and guides on the following copyright-related topics:

  • Basics of copyright in an academic environment
  • Fair use and other limitations on exclusive rights
  • Your rights and responsibilities as a creator
  • Seeking permission to use a protected work in your own work
  • Licensing your work
  • Other questions you have!