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Copyright and Fair Use


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Dr. Beth Sheppard
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Subjects: English

Copyright Basics - What, When, and For How Long?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that provides authors of original creative works with limited control over the reproduction and distribution of their work.Under the current law, copyright protection is automatic and begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 

The Copyright Act gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to:


  • reproduce their work, in whole or in part,
  • distribute copies of their work,
  • publicly perform their work,
  • publicly display their work, and
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations.

These exclusive rights, however, are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as fair use, which allow limited uses of copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright holder.  Please visit the other sections of this Guide to learn more about fair use and other copyright issues.

What is Protected and Not Protected By Copyright

Copyrightable Works Not Copyrightable

Literary works

Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g., ideas)
Musical works (including accompanying lyrics) Short phrases, slogans, commercial symbols/colors. (NOTE - these may be protected by other intellectual property laws such as trademark law)
Dramatic works Procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration. (NOTE - these may be protected by other intellectual property laws such as patent law)
Choreographic works and pantomimes (must be fixed in a tangible form, e.g., recorded or notated) Works consisting entirely of common data or entirely of facts (e.g, calendar, telephone book, weights/measures charts)
Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works Spontaneous speeches that have not been formally fixed into a tangible form
Motion pictures and other A/V works Spontaneous musical or choreograph works
Sound recordings Federal government documents (mostly). Some state government documents (see for a guide to copyright status of state government documents)
Architectural plans  
Computer programs  

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyright protection does not last forever. For new works created in the United States, protection begins with creation of the work and lasts 70 years after the date of creation. Upon expiration of the term of protection, the work passes into the public domain. For older works created in the United States, passage into the public domain depends on a variety of factors including publication status, recordation of notice, and registration. Further, for foreign copyrighted works, it is possible that works once considered to be in the public domain may have had their copyright protection restored.  See Public Domain tab of this Guide for more information on locating items in the public domain.

Resources for Determining Public Domain Status of a Work


Copyright Resources for Educators

Finding the Copyright Status of Items


Please note:

1) copyright can be transferred, so the individual/s entities listed  as the copyright owners at time of publication may not be current holders of copyright.

2) Copyright owners of an edited work (a collected work) may differ from the owners of the work's constituent parts.

The starting places for finding initial holders of published works:

  •  United States Copyright Office database of registered copyright holders
  • Library Catalogs:  
    • Ingram Library catalog. (Items in the UWG collection)
    • WorldCat (OCLC). The world's most compressive catalog that reflects the aggregated holdings of more than 10,000 libraries.  
  • Copyright Clearance Center -- A good source for identifying publishers of articles.  Note, the publishers may not be the copyright holders if copyright was retained by authors.  
  • WATCH (Writers, Artists and their Copyright Holders)
  • PicScout-- Search for image owners of over 300 million images.  



This guide is adapted from the "Copyright and Fair Use" LibGuide created by Christine Fruin of ATLA an licensed via CC-BY-NC.