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:
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
These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allow limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.
Copyright protects "original works of authorship." To be protected by copyright, a work must be original and recorded. It cannot be copied or expressed without being recorded.
Types of works protected by copyright include:
These categories should be viewed broadly for the purpose of registering your work. For example, computer programs and certain “compilations” can be registered as “literary works”; maps and technical drawings can be registered as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”
What is not protected by copyright?
In most cases, the author or creator of the work is the copyright holder unless they have transferred the rights to someone else through a written agreement, such as a publishing agreement.
If the work is created as part of a person's employment, it may be a "work for hire," meaning that the employer is 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 to create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.
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.
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. © 2010 New York University), to register the 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: "© 2010 [name]. For permissions and questions contact [address/email]."
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.
As a general rule, works registered or published in the U.S. before 1925 are in the public domain.
Works that are in the public domain in the U.S. are not protected by copyright because
You can use any U.S. work in the public domain in any way that you want, as much as you want. They belong to the public. Keep in mind, however, that the requirements for public domain vary by country.
There are several great resources for finding and accessing materials in the public domain:
NYU Libraries supports the university'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.
If you are from outside NYU and wish to clear permissions to material created by NYU, please see the NYU Permissions page.
April Hathcock, Director of Scholarly Communications and Information Policy, firstname.lastname@example.org
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 NYU Office of General Counsel.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please attribute this work to the NYU Libraries Scholarly Communications and Information Policy Department.