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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 thus include, for example, the right to email a PDF of your article to a colleague, to translate the work, to post it online, to put a Creative Commons license on it, etc. 

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, 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 is applied to any original work of authorship in a fixed, tangible form.  This means that once you  prepare a creative work and write it down, you own the copyright to it.  Many of the original, creative works you prepare in your daily life are subject to copyright - 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, 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! 

What gets copyright protection?
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, procedures, etc. are building blocks of our world, and should be freely available for others to use and build upon.  They are not subject to copyright protection. Likewise, in order for works to be subject to copyright protection, they must be original.  Small variations of an existing work, facts, or even names, slogans, or short phrases are not the subject of copyright.  I cannot, for example, change the current Facebook symbol from blue to purple and file a copyright registration for it. Note, though, that copyright is not the same as trademark, which governs corporate identity and source (e.g., company names, slogans, symbols, etc.), or 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

Not copyrightable.


Since copyright is immediate, both published and unpublished works have copyright protection, and you do not need to formally register for copyright in order to have protection over your work. There are, however, some benefits to doing so.  See the Registering for Copyright section for more information.

If you are interested in knowing 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 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 you to place a copyright notice on your work. Doing so can, however, 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 - would not be given 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 Open Licensing (GUIDE COMING SOON!) for more information.

Adding a copyright notice
If you want to put a copyright notice on your work, it is your responsibility to do so, and you do not need to formally register for copyright or receive any permission in order to do so. Note that 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

Example: © 2011 Jane Doe

*The © symbol should ONLY be used on "visually perceptible copies" (i.e., 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.


This guide is meant purely for educational purposes, and none of the content should be in any way construed as legal advice.

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