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The United States Copyright Office, describes copyright as "a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of 'original works of authorship.'" 

Copyright owners are given these exclusive rights in 17 U.S.C. § 106:

(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.

Image Credit:  "Copyright(1)"  by Melenita2012 is licensed under CC BY 2.0,


Copyright protects:

  •  literary works
  •  musical works, including any accompanying words
  •  dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  •  pantomimes and choreographic works
  •  pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  •  motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  •  sound recordings
  • architectural works

Source:  17 U.S.C. § 102(a)

Published and unpublished works are covered by copyright.


Copyright does not protect:

  • idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work. (Source:  17 U.S. C. § 102 (b)).  The aforementioned, however, may be protected by trademark or patent law.



Once an "original work is fixed in a tangible medium", it is protected.  Since March 1, 1989, copyright notice is no longer required for copyright protection. Because of this, it should be assumed that most works are copyright protected. Works published prior to March 1, 1989, generally require a copyright notice to be protected


The copyright law has gone through changes in its history which have impacted the length of time a work is protected by copyright. 

The Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States document 
developed by Peter B. Hirtle is an excellent tool to help determine whether or not a copyright has expired.

The Public Domain Slider is another tool to help you determine copyright status for works published in th United States.


Public domain refers to works that were never or are no longer protected by copyright. 

A work is in the public domain when

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner did not renew the copyright or follow proper statutory procedures
  • a work is created by a federal employee as a part of the employee's job duties
  • the creator has placed the work in the public domain