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This guide provides an introduction to U.S. copyright law and associated resources related to education and scholarship.


copyright symbolWelcome! This guide provides information and resources on copyright law and how it relates to academic activities such as research, teaching, and publication.

Copyright law aims to promote creative endeavors and to balance the private interests of copyright owners (authors) with the public interest (users). In the words of the Constitution, it is intended:

" promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." 

Copyright law is administered by the U.S. Copyright Office and detailed in Title 17 of the United States Code. The questions below provide a basic introduction to U.S. copyright law. If you don't find the answers you need on this guide, please contact us!


What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that provides authors of original creative works with limited control over the reproduction and distribution of their work. It gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in part
  • distribute copies of the work
  • publicly perform the work
  • publicly display the work
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allows limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible form from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.

Types of works protected by copyright include:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What is not protected by copyright?

  • works that have passed into the public domain
  • facts or ideas
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • procedures, methods, systems, or processes
  • works of the United States government

How do works get copyrighted?

Works are protected by copyright automatically at the time of their creation. You are not required to put a copyright notice on the work or register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive rights or protections. However, both registration and notices have advantages.

Registration - Registering is required to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Some authors simply wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration.

Notices - Providing a copyright or licensing notice on or near the work is beneficial if you are making your work publicly available. A copyright notice should provide a way for people who want to use your work to contact you, and generally includes the year of creation, the rights holder, and contact information. It may also include information about rights waived or retained by the holder, as with Creative Commons licenses.

Example of copyright notice from a website:
Example of copyright notice from a website.
Example of Creative Commons notice for an offline document:
Example of Creative Commons notice for an offline document

Who owns the copyright to a work?

In most cases, the author or creator of the work is the initial copyright holder. If two or more people together create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.

If the work is created as part of a person's employment, it may be a "work for hire," meaning that the employer is instead the copyright holder. In the university setting, faculty writings and other "traditional works of scholarship"  are typically not considered to be works for hire.

Copyright can be transferred from the original author to another person or entity through a signed, written agreement. Publishing agreements often involve a transfer of copyright, where the publisher becomes the rights holder rather than the author.

How long does copyright last?

Under current U.S. law, copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. Depending on the date of creation and whether it is a work for hire, protections may be in place for a longer or shorter amount of time. Refer to the tables provided by Cornell University Library for more information. 

After the copyright term expires, works pass into the public domain, meaning that anyone is free to reproduce, distribute, or otherwise re-use the work.

How do I determine what I can do with a work?

It is impossible to determine whether you can use a work without first considering how much of it you want to use and the manner in which you want to use it. This context will help you to decide whether and how you can make a case for your use. Rather than arriving at a strict "Yes" or "No" conclusion, you will likely make a decision that falls within one of the following categories:

1. I can make a case for my intended use of the work. 2. I can make a case for using the work in a way that satisfies my need if I adjust my use. 3. I can make a case for using the work in some way, but another work may allow more flexibility. 4. I cannot make a case for using the work the way I want and will need to look for alternatives.

To make a determination and establish a case, we suggest working through the following questions in the order that they are presented. Expand each question for a brief description and links to areas of this guide with further details about considerations you should address. As always, contact the University Libraries if you'd like additional guidance.

Consider the type of work and when it was created or published.

If you authored the work, do you still own the copyright, or did you sign over rights for your intended use to the publisher?

Various forms of licensing may be attached to the work that alter the author's rights and others' usage of their work.

  • Creative Commons is one example of licensing that has various levels of permissions and its own methods of providing notice.
  • Materials accessed through a library often present other types of licensing that govern how the copyrighted material can be used.

If the work is under a license, what are the terms and can you comply with them in your usage? Do you want to specifically seek out and support certain license types? If you are uncertain if licensing applies to a work or your usage of it, your librarian can assist you.

Exceptions and exemptions allow for certain types of uses without having to request permission or pay a fee. The most common are fair use and uses within the classroom or realm of education. Examining whether you can make use of an exception should always be done on a case-by-case basis. It is not sufficient to claim that you can use a work because your purpose is educational. Follow the links above to learn more about when and how you might use these exceptions. It might even be a good idea to document the thought process you employed in making your decision for your own records in case you encounter an issue later on.

If none of the above questions help you to establish a case for your use, you may need to request permission from the copyright owner. Sometimes identifying and locating the copyright owner is straight forward, and other times it is more difficult —if you are having trouble, the library can help you with this process.

When requesting permission, you should preferably do so in writing and fully explain your intended use. The copyright owner may approve your request or require that you alter your use. Be sure to save any communications from the copyright holder and carefully follow any instructions given. If you do not receive a response or the answer is no, you might change your use to fit within an exception or consider using another work.

Questions adapted from "A Framework for Analyzing any U.S. Copyright Problem" by Kansas State University Libraries (CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Contact Us

This guide was created and is maintained by the Scholarly Communication Department of UNC's University Libraries. If you have comments or questions or would like to learn more about the content in this library guide, please contact us.

Jen Mayer, Head of Scholarly Communication
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Nancy Henke, Textbook Affordability Librarian
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Nicole Webber, Scholarly Communication Librarian
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Stephanie Wiegand, Scholarly Publishing Librarian
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Content in this guide has been reused and adapted with permission from Kristen Hoffman of Seattle Pacific University Libraries. The original guide is available at