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This guide contains information (but not legal advice) about aspects of copyright most commonly encountered by the students, faculty, or staff of institutions of higher education.

The Basics

Copyright Defined

The founders of the United States of America felt that copyright was important enough to enshrine in the Constitution:

The Congress shall have the power . . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

"What is sometimes overlooked about copyright law is that it serves a dual purpose. One purpose is to incentivize creators ("Authors and Inventors") by allowing them to profit from their work; however, a second purpose of copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" by allowing subsequent creators to make use of previous work. That is why copyright—monopoly status for a work—is bestowed for “limited Times” rather than permanently. For example, if the Disney Corporation was not allowed to profit from its creative work, there would be no incentive for its studios to create films; however, if copyrights were perpetual, Walt Disney very likely would not have been able to transform his small animation studio into an entertainment powerhouse by creating feature-length films based on prior works, such as Snow White and Cinderella, that had become part of the public domain 


When someone uses a copyrighted work without permission, this is known as infringement. While infringement is a violation of the law, in all but the most extreme cases infringement is a violation of civil, rather than criminal, law. (I.e. Someone who infringes on copyright is far more likely to be sued by the copyright holder--the person(s) or organization that owns the copyright of a work--than to be arrested by law enforcement.) Fair use is a part of copyright law that allows, in certain cases, the legal (non-infringing) use of copyrighted works without the need to obtain permission from the copyright holder.

See the Legal Notices section of this guide for more information. 

What Rights Do Copyright Provide? 

The copyright holder enjoys the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Create derivative works.
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public via sale, rental, lease, or lending.
  • Perform the work publicly (including by means of film, sound recordings, etc.). 
  • Display the work publicly. 
  • Authorize others to exercise the above exclusive rights.

Because it is a form of property, a copyright holder can sell, give, or bequeath copyright to others. For example, at the time of his death the British author J.M. Barrie charitably left the copyright to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. In academia, authors of scholarly articles sometimes sign over their copyright to the publishers of a journal as condition of publication. (And here's why you may want to retain your copyright instead of signing it away.)

What Can Be Copyrighted?

To be eligible for copyright, a work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," for some period of time, however brief. Tangible mediums include (but are not limited to) paper, stone, film, magnetic tape, fabric, and computer memory. For example, extemporaneous lyrics fired off during a rap battle or a funny story shared among a group of friends could not be copyrighted unless they were written down or recorded in some way, such as on tape or in computer memory. 

In addition, to be copyrightable a work must also be at least minimally creative or original. For example, copying a list of names from a phone book would not be considered creative or original, while arranging those names on sheets of paper to create unique patterns would most likely be considered creative and/or original. 

Examples of works that can be copyrighted include:

  • Literary works such as prose (both fiction and non-fiction), poetry, plays, etc.
  • Musical compositions and song lyrics.
  • Theses and dissertations.
  • Video and sound recordings
  • Motion pictures
  • Recordings of television or radio broadcasts
  • Media distributed via the Internet (podcasts, blogs, vlogs, etc.)
  • Choreography
  • Artworks of all sorts, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, graphic designs, architectural work, etc.
  • Computer software
  • Maps

Examples of things that cannot be copyrighted include:

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Discoveries
  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Well known symbols
  • Works in the public domain
  • Inventions

For more information, see the U.S. Copyright Office circular, Works Not Protected by Copyright.

For example, the scientists who discovered the radioactive element Berkelium in 1948 could not have copyrighted the melting point of Berkelium because that number--1259 Kelvin--is a fact. Similarly, Albert Einstein could not have copyrighted the special theory of relativity because it is a concept; however, Einstein was free to copyright his article, "Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper," Annalen der Physik 17: 891, (1905), because his article is an expression of the special theory of relativity. Works that were never copyrighted—for example, works produced by the U.S. Federal government—and works on which the copyright has expired are in the public domain and can be freely used by anyone for any purpose. For example, "Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper" has long been in the public domain. 

While illustrations and descriptions of inventions can be copyrighted, the underlying inventions are ineligible for copyright. Instead, inventions can be patented. Words and phrases cannot be copyrighted, but they can be (with certain limitations) trademarked for business purposes. Even though the concepts of trademark and patent resemble the concept of copyright, the laws regulating each are distinct.  

Copyright and Government Publications

In general, works created by the U.S. Federal government are in the public domain and free of copyright restrictions with certain exceptions

Many foreign governments claim copyright on their publications. Whether or not the publication of a foreign government is under copyright must be determined on a case-by-case basis. 

Most California state government publications are in the public domain and free of copyright restrictions. 

The copyright rules for publications created by the governments of other U.S. states and territories vary by location. 

How Long Does Copyright Last? 

Because copyright is bestowed for only a limited time, all copyrights eventually expire, at which time the formerly copyrighted work becomes part of the public domain. Works in the public domain can be copied, adapted, and otherwise used without restrictions. For example, Walt Disney did not need permission to make Snow White (1937) because that story was in the public domain; however, Disney did need permission to make Mary Poppins (1964) because the novel on which the film was based was still under copyright.

Determining when a copyright expires can be complicated because a number of factors come into play.

Such tools as the Digital Copyright Slider and Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States are useful for answering the often complex question of, “Is this work still under copyright or not?

As a general rule, the copyright for any work published after 1977 lasts for the life of the creator (author, painter, musician, etc.) plus seventy years. For example, Nirvana guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain died in 1994; therefore, all published songs copyrighted soley in his name can remain in copyright until 2064.  

When the the copyright holder is a corporation rather than an individual, copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication or, if the work is unpublished, 120 years from the date of creation.

As of January 1, 2019, any work published before January 1, 1924 is in the public domain. On January 1, 2020, any work published before January 1, 1925, will enter the public domain. On January 1, 2021, any work published before January 1, 1926. And so on every year thereafter until 2073, when different rules will apply.

Deputy University Librarian

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Donald Barclay
UC Merced Library

Room KL 275 E

5200 N. Lake Rd.

Merced, CA 95343


ORCID: 0000-0002-9170-4438