Nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. The information presented in this guide is intended for educational purposes only. For legal guidance, please confer with the Office of General Counsel.
Copyright law is codified in Title 17 of the U.S. (the Copyright Act of 1976). Copyright is a legal protection that is provided by the government to the creators/authors of original creative and intellectual works. These works must be in a fixed or tangible form of expression, including, but not limited to, literary, dramatic, musical, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. Copyright applies to both published and unpublished works, and works are copyrighted once they are created--they do not need to be specially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
A copyright owner can file a federal lawsuit against individuals or entities that have engaged in use that the owner feels is infringing. If the use is found to have been infringing, the court can take several actions, including but not limited to awarding money damages to the owner or issuing orders to prevent further infringing uses.
The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act applies to works created from 1978 and on, and this Act states that Works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Works published previous to 1978 (and after 1923) differ in their protected status, based on how they were published, registered, and renewed. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act states that materials published, registered, and renewed in the U.S. between 1923 and 1978 would not fall into public domain for 20 years, so only materials published before 1923 were in the public domain for sure. However, items published in 1923 became public domain in 2019.
Orphan works are works that are protected by copyright but the owners of which are impossible to locate or contact. Permission to use these works is also therefore impossible and the works cannot be reused or digitized unless Fair Use applies.
The copyright owner of a work has the sole right to:
Use of a copyrighted work is permitted under circumstances that are explored elsewhere in this guide. Many times, however, when someone wants to use the copyrighted works belonging to another, that person will need to ask the copyright owner for permission to use the work. Properly citing or attributing a work is good practice to avoid plagiarizing a work, but doing this is not a substitution for obtaining explicit permission and if a use is found to be infringing then the user could be found to be liable.
"Public Domain" pertains to works of a creative nature that are not protected by copyright, trademark, patent laws, or other intellectual property laws: instead, these works belong to the public and anyone can use these works. These works can not be owned, but sometimes collections of such works are protected by copyright (like in a newly published book, for example). That is, the collection is protected by copyright, not the individual works in the collection.
A work might enter the public domain in several ways: