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.
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.
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.
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:
Copyright owners may also have rights to prevent anyone from circumventing technological protection systems that control access to the works.
Copyright law applies to almost all types of creative and intellectual work, including the following:
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:
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.
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.
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.