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Copyright, Patents & Trademarks: Copyright Basics

An aid to understand copyright law, patents and trademarks with an emphasis on academic research.

What is Copyright? 

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 Copyright protects both published and unpublished work, as well as work that is out of print.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. 

What Materials Does Copyright Protect? 

According to, copyright law protects original works of authorship, including (but not limited to): 

  • Literary, dramatic and musical works
  • Poetry
  • Novels
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Computer Software
  • Architecture

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. 

What Rights Does Copyright Protect? 

  • Copyright protects an author's right to: 
  • Reproduce a work
  • Prepare derivative works based on that work
  • Distribute copies of that work, including sale or transfer of ownership
  • Prohibit others from using the work
  • Performing the work publicly

What do I need to Do to Register a Copyright? 

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, 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."

How Long Does Copyright Last? 

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

What is the "Public Domain?" 

Works in the Public Domain can be used by anyone for any legal purpose, without permission from the author. Public Domain works include: 

  • Works for which the copyright has expired
  • Works for which the copyright owner has placed the work in the public domain
  • Works where copyright never existed

It Can be Hard to Tell What is in the "Public Domain"

Works where copyright never existed under federal law:

  • For a work to have copyright, it must be about appropriate subject matter, fixed, have at least minimal originality, and include creative expression.
    • Facts & data are not covered by copyright
  • NOTE: State common law may give additional copyright protections, so you must also check state law
  • Works of the federal government are not covered by copyright according to 17 U.S.C. 105
    • A work is a work prepared by an officer or employee as part of their official duties 
    • State government works are generally protected by copyright (check your state's laws)
      • This does not include laws, regulations or court decisions
      • For more information on state governments and copyright visit Harvard's State Copyright Resource Center
        • The Harvard page on New York and copyright is here.

Works where copyright has expired:

  • For works created during or after 1978:
    • Copyright is the life of the author, plus 70 years
    • For "works for hire" the copyright is 95 years from publication
  • For works published before 1978
    • Generally a maximum of 95 years 
    • May be shorter if the work was not registered or copyright was not renewed 
  • Works created before 1978 but not published
    • Copyright is life of the author plus 70 years 
    • See Cornell's Copyright Term chart for more information

So How Do I Tell if it is in the "Public Domain?"

  • Was it published? 
    • Published generally means copies of a work distributed to the public by sale or transfer of ownership
    • Published can also include a limited or select group distribution for limited purposes with restrictions on reproducing, distributing or selling
  • When was it published?
    • Check the list above 
  • Was it renewed? 
  • Is there anything in it that might have its own copyright held by someone else, such as a photo or chart? 
  • Make sure you know all the facts!
    • Was it published?
    • When was it published?
    • What is the nationality of the author? 
      • Works that are in the public domain in the US might still be protected abroad 
      • Works written by foreign authors may be protected in the US 
        • Failure to renew a US edition may not matter if it was also published abroad 
  • When in doubt, consult your lawyer! 


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