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Introduction to Copyright

Copyright Term & Duration

Copyright protections last a long time; in fact, these rights even extend well beyond the life of the original creator. Identifying whether or not something falls within the scope of copyright law can be complex, but a few basic rules offer a good starting point:

  • Works are copyrighted for 70 years after the life of the creator. So if you write an article, compose a song, or take a photograph, that work will remain protected by copyright for 70 years after your death. This applies whether the work is published or unpublished and whether or not you have registered the copyright or include a © mark. This also assumes that you keep your copyright and do not transfer your rights to a publisher or dedicate your work to the public domain.

  • Copyright to a "work made for hire"--something created within the scope of employment--is often held by the employer or "corporate author." A work made for hire remains in copyright for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first.

  • Copyright has expired for works published or publicly distributed before 1926.

Cornell University's Peter Hirtle has created a widely cited chart as a guide to determining whether or not a work remains in copyright:

Hirtle copyright and public domain chart

Understanding the Public Domain

Many works that ordinarily fall within the scope of copyrightable media--books, music, images, correspondence, etc.--are actually part of a vast collection of resources known as the public domain. Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright law and can be used freely for both noncommercial and commercial purposes.

The public domain in the United States includes:

  • Works published or publicly distributed prior to 1926, where copyright protection has expired
  • Works published between 1926-1977 that failed to meet conditions specified by copyright law
  • Works that have been proactively placed in or dedicated to the public domain by copyright owners
  • Works that fall outside the scope of copyright law, such as those produced by U.S. federal employees

For more information, we suggest "Welcome to the Public Domain," an overview authored by copyright expert Richard Stim and re-published by the Stanford University Copyright and Fair Use Center.