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Copyright basics

United States law grants copyright protection created for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

  • Works such as books, poems, essays, music, pictorial works, movies, photographs, dance choreography, web pages, and software (among others) that are eligible for copyright protection are automatically protected by copyright.
  • Works can be purely digital (webpage design, web graphics).
  • Names, titles, short phrases, and slogans are not protected by copyright, but may be protectable under trademark law.
  • Ideas and facts are not protected by copyright.

Under U.S. law, copyright protection is automatic upon creation of a copyrightable work. Copyright law provides the owner of the copyright with the exclusive rights to:

  • Make copies
  • Distribute copies
  • Perform or display a work publicly
  • Make derivative works (such as translations or adaptations)
  • Digitally transmit sound recordings

Copyrights can be bought, sold, willed to others, or given away. A transfer of the copyright or an exclusive grant or license to use the work is a transaction that must be conveyed in writing.

Copyright does not protect the underlying ideas described in an author's work. In general, material not eligible for copyright protection includes ideas, facts, discoveries, methods, titles, works containing no original authorship, works with expired copyrights, and U.S. government works.  

Copyright law is territorial; the information provided on this website is based on U.S. law, and may or may not be applicable to works created in other countries. For more information on using works published abroad, see the FAQ.

Length of copyright

  • Works created after 1978: the lifetime of the author plus 70 years
  • Works made for hire: the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation
  • Joint works: the lifetime of the last living author plus 70 years
  • Anonymous or pseudonymous works: 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first
Almost all original works of authorship created after 1978, even those with no mention of copyright, have copyright protection.

Works published in English before 1923 under the authority of the copyright holder will generally be in the public domain in the United States, which means anyone can use them without permission. It can be difficult to determine whether works published between 1923 and 1977 are in the public domain because the rules for copyright before 1978 were more complex. Other countries have different rules than the United States about when works enter the public domain.

For more details on the length of copyright under various conditions, see the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart hosted at Cornell.

For more information