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Copyright @SVCC: Copyright Basics

Basic introduction to copyright in the educational environment.

What is copyright?

Copyright symbol Copyright is legal protection provided to authors, artists, composers and other content creators to encourage innovation, preserve economic incentives, and facilitate access to their works by the public. Copyright exists automatically once a work is fixed in a tangible medium like paper, audio or video recording, or digital files. As of March 1, 1989, a copyright notice does not have to be displayed in order for a work to be protected. Initially the author or creator of a work is the copyright owner, unless the work was created for an employer, in which case it is considered a "work made for hire." Copyright owners can reassign ownership of their works by placing them in the public domain or by entering into a licensing agreement with a publisher.

Rights of Copyright Owners

Copyright gives exclusive rights to copyright holders for the following uses of their work:

  • creating copies (downloading, scanning, and photocopying)
  • distributing copies (selling, lending, sharing online or as email attachments)
  • creating derivatives (translations, adaptations, sequels, reinterpretations)
  • displaying them in public (posting on a website)
  • performing them in public (acting, reading aloud, or playing for an audience)

Use of Copyrighted Materials

The use of copyrighted materials in any of these ways by anyone except the copyright holder without permission is infringement, which can result in various negative consequences ranging from a court injunction to a jail sentence. Certain exemptions are built into copyright law, notably those that allow copying of works by libraries and use of copyrighted materials in educational contexts. Copyright law also allows for the use of protected materials under certain "fair use" conditions.

What is protected by copyright law?

A work is protected by copyright if it is fixed or recorded in a tangible medium and features some degree of original creative expression. Any of the following are examples of works that may be protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films and audio visual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

How long is a work protected by copyright?

Works created today are protected automatically as soon as they are created, for the life of the author plus 70 years with some exceptions. Anonymous works, pseudonymous works, and works made for hire are protected for a term of 95 years from the year of first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. Works that were created between 1923 and 1978 are subject to various copyright terms based on a number of factors, such as how they were published, registered, and renewed.  

To determine the copyright status of an older work you will need to know one or more of the following:

  • Copyright and license information
  • If and when the work was published
  • If the work was registered and renewed with the U.S. Copyright Office
  • The birth and/or death date of the author

What is not protected by copyright law?

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, concepts. principles, or discoveries, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. It does not protect procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, which qualify for protection and ownership under patent law. Works created prior to 1923 and all works created by the U.S. federal government automatically belong to the public domain and are not protected. Items that do not meet the requirement of originality are not protected, including titles, names, short phrases, familiar symbols or designs, recipes, and blank forms.

Foreign Works

Copyright law and duration also varies by country, so foreign works are not subject to United States copyright law. However, several countries have worked together to create international agreements that align their policies. Wen this is the case,  foreign works are protected for the same term as works published within the user's country.


What is Copyright?
U.S. Copyright Office

Circular 1 Copyright Basics
U.S. Copyright Office

Circular 15a Duration of Copyright
United States Copyright Office

Copyright Term and the Public Domain
Cornell University Library

Copyright Renewals
Searchable index of the copyright renewal records by Stanford Libraries

The Copyright Genie
A question/answer wizard that determines the copyright protection on a work depending on age and policy.
Michael Brewer & The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy

Digital Copyright Slider
Tool to help determine the copyright status of a work that is first published in the U.S.
Michael Brewer & The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy



This library guide is published for informational purposes and should not be interpreted as a substitute for legal advice.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License