Understanding Copyright

Copyright and the Public Domain

What is and isn't protected by copyright

Copyright protection is provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works and includes widely available material such as that posted on the Web.

The following provides a brief introduction to the basic principles of copyright and what is and is not protected and for how long. More detailed information can be found at the United States Copyright Office.

Works that may be copyrighted

Copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. No filing, registration or copyright notice (©) is required in order to have a copyright in an original work of authorship. The copyright exists automatically from the moment the original work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression."

Works of authorship include the following categories:

  1. Literary Works
  2. Musical Works, including any accompanying words
  3. Dramatic Works, including any accompanying music
  4. Pantomimes and Choreographic Works
  5. Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works
  6. Motion Pictures and other Audiovisual Works
  7. Sound Recordings
  8. Architectural Works

Works that may not be copyrighted

Copyright protection does not cover the following:

  1. Ideas or concepts
  2. Procedures
  3. Processes or systems
  4. Principles or discoveries
  5. Works not fixed in a tangible form
  6. Titles, names, short phrases, slogans (these may be protected by trademark law)
  7. Lists showing no originality
  8. Factual information
  9. U.S. government works
  10. Works in the public domain

Exclusive rights of copyright owners

Copyright owners enjoy the exclusive right to:

  1. Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  2. Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  3. Distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  4. In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  5. In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly
  6. In the case of sound records, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Primary limits on the exclusive rights of copyright owners

  1. Fair Use - The "fair use" limitation on the exclusive rights of copyright owners provides a window of limited allowable uses of copyrighted material. There is no simple test to determine if a use of a copyrighted work is allowable under fair use. For further information see the Fair Use page.
  2. Rights granted to Libraries under Section 108 of the Copyright Act:
  3. The "first sale" doctrine permits the owner of a lawfully obtained copy of a copyrighted work (e.g., a book purchased at a book store) to dispose of that copy without permission of the copyright holder.
  4. Performances and displays by instructors or pupils during face-to-face teaching activities at a nonprofit educational institution when in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, the performance or the display of individual images is given by means of a copy that was lawfully made. This exception does not permit copying and/or distribution of the work; only displays or performances during class time.

Public Domain and Length of Copyright Term

Copyright is only granted to a work for a limited amount of time, after which it passes into the public domain and can be freely used and copied. The length of term of copyright depends on a variety of factors including what laws were in effect when the work was published and the country of publication.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States provides an easy reference chart for determining whether something is still under copyright or not.

It is important to note that the fact that a work is freely available on the Internet has absolutely no bearing on whether it is in the public domain for copyright purposes. In many cases works available on the Internet are protected by copyright, and a fair use analysis is required to determine whether your proposed use is permissible. In some cases works available on the Internet are made available there without the copyright owner's permission.

University of Chicago Library logo
University of Chicago ITServices logo
University of Chicago logo

This web site is a collaboration of The Library, IT Services, and the Provost's Office and the Office of Legal Counsel.