Skip to Main Content

Copyright & Fair Use

Your guide to understanding copyright and fair use


The following guidelines have no force of law. We believe that everyone should familiarize themselves with the law, and this guide is intended to help you do so, but do not take our word as law. We’re not lawyers, we’re librarians.

What is copyright?

Copyright secures for creators of intellectual property or their designees the exclusive right:


  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  6. in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (17 U.S.C. § 106).


Copyright allows for rights holders to authorize that others may do the above things, to pass on a copyright to their heirs or to transfer it to someone else. Temporary licenses to do the above things with a copyrighted work can also be issued by the rights holder. And, often, copyrighted works are produced “for hire,” and the company that the creator did the work for will be the rights holder.

Short answer:

It’s complicated. Cornell has put together a very useful chart of copyright terms.


Long answer:

Until 1978, rights holders had to register their works with the US Copyright Office upon publication. If they did not, their works would be part of the public domain, free for all to copy and use how they saw fit. Rights holders also had to register for renewal after the initial term had elapsed, or their works would pass into the public domain at that point.


The first copyright law in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1790, established a copyright term of fourteen years with another fourteen years granted upon renewal. The Act was amended in 1831, extending the initial term of copyright to 28 years, while the fourteen-year renewal period remained the same. Another amendment in 1909 extended the renewal period to 28 years as well.


In 1976, the Copyright Act was thoroughly revised. Under the new Act, creators no longer have to register for copyright as long as they include notice of copyright upon publication, and renewals are no longer necessary. Beginning with works published on or after January 1, 1978, works by a single author received copyright protection for a term of the author’s lifetime plus fifty years. For works by multiple authors, this term is measured from the date of the last surviving author’s death. Works for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works received copyright protection for 75 years from publication or 100 years from creation, whichever was shorter.

In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, extending the duration of copyright protection to the author’s life plus seventy years for single-author works and to 95 years from creation or 120 years from publication on works for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works. Unlike previous extensions, this act prevented any new works from entering the public domain by virtue of copyright expiration for twenty years. Since renewal was no longer necessary and since the act applied to all works under copyright at the time that the bill was signed into law, all works published on or after January 1, 1923, would remain under copyright protection until January 1, 2019. No further term extensions were passed, and works from 1923 entered the public domain on that date. Barring future legislation, works from subsequent years will pass into the public domain each January 1 as their 95-year terms expire.

Open Access refers to intellectual content that is freely available online. The word, “free,” in this context, expresses both its meanings at once, gratis and libre. Open Access content is both free of cost and free of most licensing restrictions, but this does not mean that Open Access content is not copyrighted. Copyright is affixed automatically upon publication. However, creators can choose to supplement copyright with a Creative Commons license that allows others to legally copy, distribute, remix, revise and build upon their work. Sometimes publishing under an open access license is made a condition for research funding.


There are several licenses to choose from, and they allow for a wide spectrum of access. All Creative Commons licenses will allow you to copy and distribute the work as long as you attribute the original author, most will allow you to adapt the work to your purposes, and some will even allow you to use the work commercially.


By releasing your work under a Creative Commons license, you can share your work with the community while being assured that it is only being used in the ways that you approve. For example, you might want to allow web designers to use your photos, but only for noncommercial purposes, or you might want to allow other musicians to remix your song, but only if they share the new song under the same license. Scholarly Open Access works are read and downloaded more often, and there is even some evidence that they have higher rates of citation. Creative Commons has a handy license chooser tool that will help you choose the one that works best for you.


For more information, see our Open Access subject guide.