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Copyright Resources to Support Publishing and Teaching

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 in its most basic form is actually just that: the right to copy. The term "copyright," however, is a bit misleading: copyright is not just one right - it is several exclusive rights that an author (usually the creator) has over their work. Copy rights. The copyright holder has the exclusive right to do (and allow others to do) the following:

Exclusive rights of the copyright holder

  • reproduce the work
  • prepare derivative works
  • distribute copies or transfer ownership
  • publicly perform the work (e.g., show a movie, perform a play, or play a song recording)
  • display the work publicly

See Copyright Basics (Circ 1) from for more information.

These rights include, for example, the right to email a PDF of your article to a colleague, to translate a book from language to another, to post a copy of your article online, to put a Creative Commons license on it, or even to sell it to someone else completely. 

In the United States and many other countries, copyright is a form of intellectual property that gives an author/creator legal protection over their original work and how it is reused, redistributed, and reproduced. This guide focuses on U.S. copyright law, but you can take a look at the International Laws section of this guide if you want to know more about copyright in other countries.

What gets copyrighted and when?

Copyright exists in any original work of authorship in a fixed, tangible form. This means that once you prepare a creative work and write it down, you, as the creator of the work, own the copyright to it.  Many of the original, creative works you prepare in your daily life are subject to copyright law - owner, you! That holiday letter I (finally!) sent off to my family this morning  Copyrighted. The selfie I took last night? Copyrighted. The notes I took in class last semester? Yes, those are copyrighted, too. The grocery list I prepared for my roommate?  Not so much.  While it is written down in a tangible form, there is nothing "original" or "creative" about it.  It is just a factual list of things I intend to pick up from the market - it has no creative spark!

See for more information

What gets copyright protection?
Definitions from the U.S. Copyright Office at
Types of Copyrightable Works Types of Non Copyrightable Works
literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual creations names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, listings of contents or ingredients

Copyright only exists in original works that are in "fixed, tangible form".  Ideas, concepts, and procedures are the building blocks of our world, and should be freely available for others to use and build upon. They are not subject to copyright protection. People will frequently say that someone violated their copyright because they "stole" their idea.  This is not correct.  Stealing an idea is not a copyright violation because copyright only protects the expression of that idea. So for example, nobody owns the idea of a story about three little pigs that are the victims of a series of wolf attacks.  That idea is free for anyone to use.  What may be subject to copyright protection is the expression of that idea.  The individual, original, sentences that an author writes down to tell that story belong to the author even if the story is telling a common theme or literary trope. 

Likewise, in order for works to be subject to copyright protection, they must be original.  Small variations of an existing work, facts, common shapes or symbols, names, slogans, or short phrases are not the subject of copyright.  One cannot, for example, change the current Facebook symbol from blue to purple and file a copyright registration for it.  Likewise, one cannot register a book title with the U.S. Copyright Office to prevent others from using it.  Note, though, that copyright law is not the same as trademark law, which governs corporate identity and source (this includes company names, slogans, symbols).  Copyright law is also different from patent law, which protects inventions or discoveries, although they are all under the "intellectual property right" umbrella.


blue vs purple facebook logo, demonstrating something that is not copyrightable                          fact "Absolute zerio is 0 Kelvin (-273.15C)

Not copyrightable.

Since copyright is immediate once an original work is fixed, both published and unpublished works have copyright protection.  An author does not need to formally register with the United States Copyright Office to have copyright protection.  However, registration offers some benefits. See the Registering for Copyright section for more information.

If you are interested in learning more about what is, and is not, protected under copyright, please see the United States Copyright Office's FAQ, "What Does Copyright Protect?"

How long does copyright last?

The term of U.S. copyright for a particular creative 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.

See the chart originally prepared by Peter Hirtle, to learn more about how to determine the duration of copyright. See Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, available at

Copyright notice

Since copyright is automatic for works eligible for copyright (see above - what gets copyrighted and when?), U.S. law currently does not require authors to place a copyright notice on their work. 

Even though it is not required, placing a copyright notice on creative work can be beneficial: it tells people that the work is protected under copyright (which means that in court, a defendant's use of an innocent infringement defense - that they did not know the work was protected - may not be given great weight), who owns the copyright, and when the work was published/created.

If you want people to be able to share and (re)use your work, however, you might consider using a Creative Commons license ("some rights reserved") instead of the traditional copyright notice ("all rights reserved"). See Controlling the Way you Share Your Work in the newly released Penn LibGuide Services for Authors at the Penn Libraries.

Adding a copyright notice
You do not need to formally register for copyright with the United States Copyright Office in order to use a copyright notice or the copyright symbol on your work.  Adding a copyright notice to your work is NOT the same as formally registering for copyright. See the Registering for Copyright page for more information.

A copyright notice should have the three following elements:

  1. The copyright symbol © OR the word "Copyright" OR the abbreviation "Copr." *
  2. The year of the first publication
  3. The name of the copyright owner

All of the below examples of a copyright notice convey the same information and are valid:

  • © 2011, Jane Doe.
  • Copyright 2011, Jane Doe.
  • Copyr. 2011, Jane Doe.

*The © symbol should ONLY be used on "visually perceptible copies" (not audio/sound); audio recordings are considered "phonorecords," not "copies," and thus use the symbol ℗ instead of ©.

The position of the notice depends on the type of material.  For more information on the copyright notice, how to add a notice and where, see Circular 3, Copyright Notice.


The purpose of this guide is to provide resources and information for resolving copyright questions. This research guide is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice.

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