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Academic Integrity & Avoiding Plagiarism: Copyright

Use this guide to navigate issues of academic integrity and scholarly communication.

A Note on Public Domain

Works that are in the public domain in the U.S. are not protected by copyright for any of the following reasons:

  1. The author dedicated them to public use
  2. The copyright term has expired without renewal
  3. The work is of a type that does not qualify for copyright protection

You can use any U.S. work in the public domain in any way that you want, as much as you want. They belong to the public. Keep in mind, however, that the requirements for public domain vary by country.

There are several great resources for finding and accessing materials in the public domain:


Additional Resources

Copyright Basics - U.S. Copyright Office

Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians - U.S. Copyright Office

Owning and Using Scholarship: An IP Handbook for Teachers and Researchers - Kevin L. Smith, J.D., Director of the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication at Duke University 

Owning and Using Scholarship book cover

Copyright Term and the Public Domain - Cornell University

Public Domain Handbook - University of California at Berkeley Law School


Material Obtained From

The large majority of this Guide was obtained from Copyright Basics. Great thanks to April Hatchcock for permission to use.


Below is a basic introduction to U.S. copyright law -- what it protects, how long it lasts, the rights it grants to authors, and its exceptions and limitations.

You will find further information on:

  • understanding and applying Fair Use
  • determining when you need permission to use copyrighted works and how to get it
  • managing your own copyrights and understanding your rights as an author

If you don't find the answers you need here, please:


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 allow limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects "original works of authorship." To be protected by copyright, a work must be original and recorded. It cannot be copied or expressed without being recorded.

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?

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


What does this mean for you as an author?

You do not need to register your work to have copyright over it, once you create a work in tangible form you have the rights to it. You have a right to control:

  • where your work is published
  • who has access
  • whether and how it can be re-used

However, you should note that adding a copyright notice, creative commons license (thought this allows for copying of work with attribution), or registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is a smart move to make.

Effectively managing your rights as a copyright owner can help you to maximize the impact of your research and scholarship.

What is Fair Use?

In order to balance the interests of the creators of copyrighted works with the public's ability to benefit from those works, copyright law includes the exemption of Fair Use

Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and teaching.

However, just because a use is educational does not mean that it automatically qualifies as fair use. When using content for certain purposes it is important to consider copyright and if you might be infringing on it.

Columbia Fair Use Checklist

Fair Use Evaluator - American Library Association

Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center Stanford University Libraries

Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians - U.S. Copyright Office



How can I tell if a work is still under copyright?

Depending upon when a work was created, it is subject to different requirements regarding copyright notice and registration, as well as different copyright terms. 

For example, before 1978 U.S. law required that works be published with a notice of copyright to receive protection. Failure to comply with this requirement would result in the work being in the public domain.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain, a guide to copyright duration created by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University, is a comprehensive and useful resource for researching a work's copyright status. You can also use the Copyright Slider from the American Library Association for quick reference.

As a general rule, works registered or published in the U.S. before 1924 are in the public domain.

What is a Creative Commons License?

Creative Commons logo

Creative Commons helps you share your knowledge & creativity with the world.

Creative Commons licenses are a standardized way to give others permission to share and use your work -- on conditions of your choice. You retain copyright of your work while allowing others to make limited use.

Choose a License

Learn more: