Copyright law is intended to protect authors and their creative output. Copyright protects both published and unpublished work, as well as work that is out of print. Copyright protects a work the moment it is created in a tangible form.
According to Copyright.gov, copyright law protects original works of authorship, including (but not limited to):
Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation.
Copyright protects a work the moment it is created in a tangible form, regardless of whether the author or creator registers a copyright with the government. However, according to Copyright.gov, a work does need to be registered in order to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement. To register a copyright with the U.S. government, see "Registering a Copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office."
In general, copyright in the United States, for works created today, lasts for 70 after the death of the author. Corporate authors have copyright protection for 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. Once copyright protection expires, a work enters the "Public Domain."
For more specifics on copyright terms, see Cornell University's Copyright Information Center chart.
Works in the Public Domain can be used by anyone for any legal purpose, without permission from the author. Public Domain works include:
Works where copyright never existed under federal law:
Works where copyright has expired:
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