Understanding copyright

U.S. Copyright law balances the interests of authors who have created works with the interests of users of those works. The purpose of copyright is "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts," while also serving as a form of protection provided to authors of "original works of authorship."

This balance is maintained by the provision of certain rights to authors – such as the right to reproduce, distribute, or prepare derivatives of the work – and the provision of some exceptions and limitations to those entitlements.

The U.S. Copyright Act can be found at Title 17 of the United States Code. The U.S. Copyright Office also provides information on copyright.

What is covered by copyright?

Copyright protection in the U.S. exists automatically from the moment an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium. Examples include movies, poetry, prose, software, artwork, musical notation, recorded music, animations, video, a web page, blog posts and comments, architectural drawings, or photographs.

Most everything in print and on the internet is protected by copyright. This means that the creator of an original work has exclusive rights to how it is used and distributed. Check the works you are using for statements about copyright, ownership, and intellectual property rights. It is your responsibility to respect these rights since you can be liable for any infringements.

Works in the public domain, such as a work first published in the United States before 1929, are no longer protected by copyright. See Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States to determine whether a work published in the United States is in the public domain or covered by copyright.

You can sometimes use copyrighted items for teaching and research purposes under fair use provisions or specific educational exceptions. Works with an open license such as a Creative Commons license can also be legally shared with appropriate attribution or other specified conditions.

Learn more about copyright

If you're shifting your face-to-face course to online delivery and have concerns about copyright, please see:

Campus policies

Contact us

We are here to help you learn about copyright rules and know how to use information ethically. We offer one-on-one and small group consultation on topics related to rights and intellectual property issues in teaching, research, and publishing. We are also available for class lectures or other presentations.

If you have any questions, contact our copyright librarian, Ellen Dubinsky.