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Copyright Resources to Support Publishing and Teaching: Copyright Basics

A guide for faculty, staff, and students at Penn about how to obtain, manage, and understand copyright issues for their work

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept enacted by most governments which gives the author or creator of an original work rights over how that work is reproduced.

In the United States, U.S. Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright may cover both published and unpublished works.

As a general rule the guidelines and information within this website refer to items covered by U.S. law.  Items published in foreign countries may be held under different rules.

How long does copyright last?

The term of U.S. copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.

To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.

Cornell University has created an easy to read guide to Copyright Term and the Public Domain In the United States.

These copyright terms apply only to material published in the United States.  Items published in other countries are likely to have different terms.

What is the public domain?

The public domain is made up of of works that are ineligible for copyright protection or have expired copyrights. No permissions are needed to copy or use public domain works.

  • Some works, such as government documents, statistical techniques and judicial opinions are simply not eligible for copyright and so are always within the public domain.
  • Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain.
  • Works published between 1923 and March 1989 are usually under copyright , but registrations and renewals were required.  This means that some of these works may have entered the public domain.
  • All works created (published and unpublished) in the United States after 1989 are under copyright and require permissions for use unless a specific non-assertion of copyright was made. 

For a helpful resource on which materials are under copyright and which are in the public domain please consult Cornell University's Copyright Term and the Public Domain webpage.

What does copyright protect (or not)?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

How is copyright different from patents and trademarks?

Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

Who owns copyright?

Copyright is usually owned, at least initially, by the creator of a work and his or her heirs.  The creator may transfer some or all of their rights to another person or entity, such as a publisher.  This transfer of rights may be unconditional (an assignment) or for a limited period of time or set of conditions (licensed). 

Works created by an employee as part of their job, usually called 'works for hire', may be owned by the employer.  Depending on contractual arrangements works created under commision by an independent contractor may belong to the commisioning person or organization. 

Works created by two or more creators may belong to them jointly.

Does Penn have policies on copyright?

Need help?

For further assistance with copyright issues, contact

For questions about use of materials on reserve, contact Lori Rowland or the librarian at your reserve location.