This is the "Copyright Basics" page of the "Copyright" guide.
Alternate Page for Screenreader Users
Skip to Page Navigation
Skip to Page Content


A guide to copyright law as it relates to academic research, teaching, and publication.
Last Updated: Jun 27, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Copyright Basics Print Page

LCO @ NYU Libraries

Library Copyright Office logo


If you don't find the answers you're looking for here, we are always available at, or by appointment at your convenience.

Please get in touch to arrange for a presentation for your department, class, or program on any copyright issues that affect you. 


The Library Copyright Office supports NYU's research, teaching, and service mission by providing guidance for faculty, students, and staff on how copyright relates to the creation, use, and sharing of knowledge.



The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to NYU, please contact the Office of General Counsel.



copyright symbolCopyright Information & Education

Welcome! This guide provides information and resources on copyright law and how it relates to academic activities such as research, teaching, and publication.

Below is a basic introduction to U.S. copyright law -- what it protects, how long it lasts, the rights it grants to authors, and its exceptions and limitations.

Other parts of this guide provide further information on:

  • understanding and applying Fair Use
  • determining when you need permission to use copyrighted works and how to get it
  • managing your own copyrights and understanding your rights as an author

NYU Faculty, Administrators and Students should first consult the university's Educational and Research Uses of Copyrighted Materials Policy Statement

The University of California at Berkeley Law School's Samuelson Clinic has also produced a very helpful guide to determining whether a particular work is in the public domain. Please see it at: Is it in the Public Domain? and the Accompanying visuals. These educational tools help users to evaluate the copyright status of a work created in the United States between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1977—those works that were created before today's 1976 Copyright Act. Many important works—from archival materials to family photos and movies—were created during this time, and it can be difficult to tell whether they are still under copyright. The handbook walks readers though a series of questions—illustrated by accompanying charts—to help readers explore whether a copyrighted work from that time is in the public domain, and therefore free to be used without permission from a copyright owner. Knowing whether a work is in the public domain or protected by copyright is an important first step in any decision regarding whether or how to make use of a work.

Additional assistance is available in the form of an online course offered by Duke University, Emory University and the University of North Carolina, designed specifically to assist educators and librarians understand the copyright landscape: Copyright for Educators and Librarians

For better or worse, copyright law affects numerous aspects of academic life -- if you don't find the answers you need here, please contact us!


What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that provides authors of original creative works with limited control over the reproduction and distribution of their work. It gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in part
  • distribute copies of the work
  • publicly perform the work
  • publicly display the work
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allows limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.


What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects "original works of authorship." To be copyrightable, a work must be created by the author rather than copied, and must involve some minimal degree of creativity. It must also be "fixed in [a] tangible medium," meaning that it must in some sense be recorded, such as on paper, in a computer file, on a DVD, etc. Types of works protected by copyright include:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What is not protected by copyright?

  • facts or ideas
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • procedures, methods, systems or processes
  • works of the United States government
  • works that have passed into the public domain

Who owns the copyright to a work?

In most cases, the author or creator of the work is the initial copyright holder. If the work is created as part of a person's employment, it may be a "work for hire," meaning that the employer is instead the copyright holder. In the university setting, faculty writings and other "traditional works of scholarship," such as syllabi and lecture materials are typically not considered to be works for hire.

If two or more people together create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.

Copyright can be transferred from the original author to another person or entity through a signed, written agreement. Publishing agreements often involve a transfer of copyright, where the publisher becomes the rights holder, rather than the author.


How do works get copyrighted?

Under U.S. law, works are protected by copyright automatically at the time of their creation. You are not required to put a copyright notice on the work (e.g. (c) 2010 New York University), to register with work with the U.S. Copyright Office, or to publish the work.

Although providing a copyright notice is not legally required, it can be a good idea to include one anyway if you are making your work publicly available. A copyright notice should provide a way for people who want to use your work to contact you, such as: "(c) 2010 [name]. For permissions and questions contact [address/email]."


How long does copyright last?

Under current U.S. law, copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. For works made for hire, the copyright term is either 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

After the copyright term expires, works pass into the public domain, meaning that anyone is free to reproduce, distribute, or otherwise re-use the work.


How can I tell if a work is still under copyright?

Determining whether older works are still protected by copyright can be a complex undertaking. Depending upon when a work was created, it is subject to different requirements regarding copyright notice and registration, as well as different copyright terms.  For example, before 1978 U.S. law required that works be published with a notice of copyright to receive protection. Failure to comply with this requirement would result in the work being in the public domain.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain, a guide to copyright duration created by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University, is a comprehensive and useful resource for researching a work's copyright status.

Subject Librarian

Profile Image
Michael Stoller, Director of Collections & Research Services, Medieval/Renaissance Studies Librarian
Contact Info
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2566
Send Email


The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to NYU, please contact the Office of the General Counsel.


Loading  Loading...