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RELI 3206: Religion in the Archive

Copyright and Public Domain


This guide offers an overview of the issues surrounding intellectual property for research and scholarship. The content of this guide is not intended to provide legal advice.


What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of federal legal protection for authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Copyright law applies to a wide range of creative and intellectual works, including but not limited to poetry, novels, articles, reports, movies, songs, choreographed works, computer software, and architecture. 

Who owns the copyright of a work?

As a general rule, the initial owner of the copyright is the person who did the creative work—the “author”. However, copyright can be transferred—the author can give or sell their rights to others. In addition, rights can be transferred temporarily by contract. These contracts are often called licensing agreements.

What rights do copyright owners have?

Current federal copyright law generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do the following, as well as the right to authorize others to do the following:

  • reproduce the work 
  • prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • distribute copies of the work 
  • perform the work publicly
  • display the work publicly

Copyright owners may also have rights to prevent anyone from circumventing technological protection systems that control access to the works. 

What works are protected by copyright?

Copyright law applies to almost all types of creative and intellectual work, including the following:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What works are not protected by copyright?

Copyright law does not apply to everything.  Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, discoveries or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. Examples of works generally not eligible for federal copyright protection include the following:

  • ideas that have not been fixed or recorded in some way
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • simple listings of ingredients
  • facts or works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (e.g., standard calendars, tape measures and rulers, etc.)
  • procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices

When does copyright apply to a work, and for how long is a work protected?

Copyright protectable works receive instant and automatic copyright protection at the time that they are created. Works do not need to be published or registered to be protected by copyright, but they do need to be expressed and/or recorded in a fixed format. 
Copyright does expire. Current copyright law states that protection generally lasts as long as the author’s life plus an additional 70 years. When a work’s copyright expires, the work enters the public domain.  For works made for hire (works made for a corporation or institution), the copyright term is either 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

Public Domain

What is the public Domain?

A work is in the public domain if its copyright has expired or if it never met the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.


How can I tell if something is in the public domain?

As a general rule, works registered or published in the U.S. before 1923 are in the public domain. U.S. government documents are in the public domain. For all other works, some research is required to determine whether it is in the public domain. A good place to start is Cornell University's Copyright Information Center.

Fair Use

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a provision of US copyright law that allows exceptions to an author's exclusive rights to their creative work. The Provision, Section 107 of the US Copyright Act, allows for the use of copyrighted material "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship and research." Other countries have their own version of copyright law, which is important to keep in mind when the copyright holder is outside the United States.

In the United States, using copyrighted material for educational purposes does not automatically mean the use is fair. The fairness of use is determined by weighing four factors. They are:

  • Purpose and character of the use: Is the use of copyrighted material intended for scholarship, research, teaching, criticism, comment, or news reporting? The use of copyrighted material for educational purposes is generally favored over commercial use. Is the use “transformative” (has it been changed in a way that is meaningful and not simply derivative)? Significant changes to the original work are often considered fair use.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work: Is the copyrighted work creative or instructive? A copyrighted work that is highly creative (art, music, fiction, poetry, etc.) may be protected more strongly than an instructive work. Is the copyrighted work unpublished? Unpublished works are protected more strongly because the courts generally protect an author’s right of “first publication.”
  • The amount or substantiality of the use: Will only a small portion of the copyrighted work be used? Is that portion “the heart” of the copyrighted work? A quotation or detail of an image may be weighted as fair use. However, a short snippet of a song, if embodying the character of the whole, might be weighed as unfair use.
  • Effect of the use on market value: Will the use of copyrighted material infringe upon the original author or authors ability to benefit from their creation? Will this affect the market value of the original work? 

To determine fair use you need to weigh all of the four factors, and not all factors are weighted in the same way for each use. Generally speaking, the use of copyrighted material can be considered fair when a majority of the factors meet the threshold of fair use.