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US copyright law attempts to provide a balance between encouraging creative expression by protecting the rights of authors, artists, creators, and publishers with the need for society to benefit from a free exchange of ideas.


© Basics

Current US copyright law protects a variety of creative expressions including literary works, art, architecture, design, audiovisual works, dance, performances, computer software, music, and sound recordings.

To receive copyright protection, the item must meet three criteria. It must be original, have some creativity (facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted), and be fixed in a tangible form (such as paper, computer disk, clay, audiotape). Copyright is automatic for items meeting these criteria, but registering the item with the US Copyright Office enhances this protection.

Copyright owners are given the exclusive rights of reproduction, sale, display/performance, distribution, and adaptation. They can share these rights with others or seek restitution in court for unauthorized use of their work. The “fair use” clause permits some types of “unauthorized” use for the purposes of criticism, news reporting, teaching, and for research as long as the use meets the test of four basic factors.

The length of copyright protection varies depending on the circumstances of the item’s creation and the date of its creation; see the box below to begin your research.

The fine print

US copyright law is a delicate balance, with limits set both on the rights of creators and on the public’s use. Lawyers have varying interpretations of copyright law provisions; some like “fair use” guidelines and others do not.  Case law also can be conflicting, though court cases continue to elucidate the law.  The resources listed in this document may help you decide if your project has a copyright problem. If you need copyright advice, you might want to contact a lawyer.

This guide is informational only and should not be construed as legal advice about your project and its copyright implications.


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Basic information from the Library of Congress.