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Using Copyrighted Works

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


The first question a user of any copyrighted work should determine is this:  Is the work covered by copyright? 

  • The quick "rule of thumb" answer: if it was published in the U.S. after 1922, it is likely to be covered by copyright.  
  • 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.  

Is the work still in copyright?

An easier question to answer is this:  Is the work in the Public Domain?  

  • The "rule of thumb" here is that a work copyrighted before 1923 is in the Public Domain in the U.S.
  • If you intend to use the work online, you should consider that even though the work may be in the Public Domain in the U.S., it may still be covered by copyright elsewhere in the world.  The internet is, of course, an international forum, so care is advised here.
  • For a thorough and detailed view of what is in the Public Domain and what works are likely still covered by copyright, see Peter Hirtle's Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States
  • The Hathi Trust has been conducting a thorough review of books published between 1923 and 1962.  When they have determined that books published in that period were either not renewed (as was required between those years) or fell into the public domain because of other technicalities, they have made the book publicly available for reading.  Member institutions of the Hathi Trust can not only read these public domain books but can download them as well.  Brown University is currently a member of the Hathi Trust.

Creative Commons Licenses

Since 2001, it has been possible for authors to give blanket permission for certain uses of their work by using a Creative Commons license.  For example, if the author were permitting you to use the work in any way you like as long as you acknowledge him or her as the author, he/she might choose a CC-by license:


Other licenses and their restrictions may be found at Creative Commons.  Most Open Access publications are published under a Creative Commons license.

Works licensed by Creative Commons must be used only with the restrictions (if any) that the CC license places on the work.  Uses beyond those licenses may require you to either seek permission or to apply Fair Use.

Resources for determining copyright status

  • The U.S. Copyright Office offers a set of digitized books covering the copyright registrations recorded between 1891 and 1977 called the Catalog of Copyright Entries.  While each volume is searchable, it is not easy to use.  It is recommended only for the most diligent of copyright status seekers. For works after Jan. 1, 1978, the Copyright Office maintains a searchable database of copyright registrations called the Copyright Catalog (1978 to present).
  • Until the U.S. Copyright Office's Project to scan and OCR its retrospective card catalog of copyright entries is complete, a useful stop gap is Stanford University Library's Copyright Renewal Database covering 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. 
  • Peter Hirtle'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.