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copyright symbolCopyright Information & Education

Welcome! This guide provides information and resources on copyright law and how it relates to academic activities such as research, teaching, and publication. For questions related to how copyright affects your own created works, see For Authors & Creators, linked from this guide.

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. Adjustments to the 1976 U.S. copyright law are reflected in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 and the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH) of 2002.

Other parts of this guide provide further information on:

  • understanding and applying Fair Use
  • In-class exception and the TEACH Act
  • guidelines for classroom copying of books and periodicals
  • determining when you need permission to use copyrighted works and how to get it
  • managing your own copyrights and understanding your rights as an author

Please note that nothing written here should be construed as legal advice. If you have specific questions that this section does not address, you may wish to seek legal advice.

For better or worse, copyright law affects numerous aspects of academic life -- if you don't find the answers you need here, please contact us!

How do I determine what I can do with a work?

You can walk through a step-by-step process to determine if the work is copyrighted, if there is an exception or license that covers your use, how to determine if fair use applies, and if you need to request permission. Created by Kevin Smith, Lisa Macklin, and Anne Gilliland who all are librarians and lawyers, "A Framework for Analyzing any U.S. Copyright Problem" is a useful document to walk you through the process one step at a time. 

What is copyright?

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

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in part
  • distribute copies of the work
  • publicly perform the work
  • publicly display the work
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allows limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects "original works of authorship." To be copyrightable, a work must be created by the author rather than copied, and must involve some minimal degree of creativity. It must also be "fixed in [a] tangible medium," meaning that it must in some sense be recorded, such as on paper, in a computer file, on a DVD, etc.

Types of works protected by copyright include:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What are not protected by copyright?

  • facts or ideas
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • procedures, methods, systems or processes
  • works of the United States government
  • works that have passed into the public domain

Who owns the copyright to a work?

In most cases, the author or creator of the work is the initial copyright holder. If the work is created as part of a person's employment, it may be a "work for hire," meaning that the employer is instead the copyright holder. In the university setting, faculty writings and other "traditional works of scholarship"  are typically not considered to be works for hire.

If two or more people together create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.

Copyright can be transferred from the original author to another person or entity through a signed, written agreement. Publishing agreements often involve a transfer of copyright, where the publisher becomes the rights holder, rather than the author.

How do works get copyrighted?

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. (c) 2014 Seattle Pacific University), to register with 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: "(c) 2014 [name]. For permissions and questions contact [address/email]."

How long does copyright last?

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.

How can I tell if a work is still under copyright?

Determining whether older works are still protected by copyright can be a complex undertaking. 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.

The University of California at Berkeley Law School's Samuelson Clinic has also produced a very helpful guide to determining whether a particular work is in the public domain. Please see it at: Is it in the Public Domain? and the Accompanying visuals. These educational tools help users to evaluate the copyright status of a work created in the United States between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1977—those works that were created before today's 1976 Copyright Act. Many important works—from archival materials to family photos and movies—were created during this time, and it can be difficult to tell whether they are still under copyright.

Patent and Copyright Law and These Policies

Patent and copyright law change frequently and may affect the policies in this copyright guide. The University Library maintains a current understanding of legislative changes and legal interpretations as they occur; anyone with questions is urged to contact the library for current advice, which does not substitute for legal counsel. These copyright and patent policies are reviewed periodically by University counsel which is responsible to recommend necessary amendments to this portion of the Handbook. Information is distributed to all faculty as changes occur.