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Find resources and recommendations on making legal and ethical use of copyrighted scholarly work.

Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17 U.S. Code) protects original works, published or not published, that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” and can be touched, seen, heard, or read. Works are protected from the moment they are in a fixed format regardless of whether they contain a copyright notice or copyright has been registered.

The copyright owner of a work has the exclusive right to do or authorize any of the following (Title 17 U.S. Code § 106):

  1. Reproduce the copyrighted work
  2. Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; [examples include translations, musical settings, dramatizations, and motion picture versions.
  3. Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. Perform the copyrighted work in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  5. Display the copyrighted work, 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;
  6. Broadcast the copyrighted work, in the case of sound recordings.

It is important to note that the law refers to the copyright owner rather than the author.  While authors own the copyright to a work at its inception, in most publication contracts the author surrenders their copyright ownership to the publisher.

Determine Copyright Coverage

Copyright Coverage

  • The quick "rule of thumb" answer: if it was published in the U.S. before 1923, it is not covered by copyright.  (Please note the exceptions discussed in the Music section of this LibGuide.)
  • If the work is in the Public Domain (i.e. its copyright term has expired), it is not covered by copyright and it is free to use. Standard scholarly practice still requires you to cite the work and its creator/author as appropriate in the context of your use.
  • A work produced by the U.S. Government is in the Public Domain, but certain images, charts, etc. within a U.S. Government publication may be copyrighted.
  • After 1989 the © symbol is not needed to claim copyright. However, use of the © symbol communicates the author's intention for the work to be copyrighted, may discourage infringement, and makes it easier to track down the author of a work.


Copyright Coverage for a Specific Work


Items NOT Protected by Copyright

  • Titles, names, slogans, short phrases
  • Ideas, procedures, theories, methods, principles, concepts, systems (although the expression of these ideas may be copyrighted)
  • Works lacking originality (e.g., calendars, tape measures, rulers)
  • Any work created by a U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain as part of their official work.This applies only to U.S. government works, not the works of other national or state governments.

Resources for determining copyright status

  • The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a searchable database of copyright registrations called the Copyright Catalog (1978 to present).
  • Stanford University Library's Copyright Renewal Database covers renewal records published between 1950 and 1992 for books (only) originally copyrighted between 1923 and 1962. The purpose of the this database is to verify whether a book published between 1923 and 1962 was in fact renewed.  If it was, it remains in copyright; if it wasn't it may well be in the Public Domain. Is this definitive? No, but it does suggest that the book may be free for you to use. 
  • Cornell's Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States is perhaps the most thorough explanation of the complexities of both U.S. and international copyright terms.