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Library Research Guides

Copyright Basics

This guide provides answers to common copyright questions.

Copyright Questions?

The University of Michigan Library Copyright Office provides help with copyright questions for University of Michigan faculty, staff and students. Please email us with questions or visit our website for more information.

Legal Advice

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to the University of Michigan, please contact the Office of the General Counsel.

If you require legal advice in your personal capacity, the lawyer referral services operated by the Washtenaw County Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan may be helpful to you.

Duration & Formalities

Works that are not subject to copyright are in the public domain. They may be used without permission. In the United States, a copyrightable work is in the public domain if:

  • It was published before March 1, 1989 and did not comply with one or more of the required formalities. (Note: if the work was first published outside of the United States, copyright restoration may apply. For more information, see Copyright Restoration Under the URAA (PDF).)
  • The term of its copyright protection has ended.
  • Its copyright holder placed it in the public domain using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

Every country has its own rules about when a copyrightable work enters the public domain.

Formalities

In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright.

In the past, authors had to comply with certain formalities in order to obtain copyright protection. These formalities included registering the work with the US Copyright Office and placing a copyright notice on the work. Copyright law no longer requires that authors comply with these formalities merely to obtain copyright protection. However, registering a work and putting a copyright notice on a work still come with legal benefits, so authors often do these things anyway.

Copyright Notice

Under current US law, you do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, you may want to.

Putting a copyright notice (the copyright symbol (©), the year of publication, and the name of the copyright owner) on a work tells the rest of the world that the work is protected by copyright. If the copyright owner later sues someone for infringing her copyright in the work, she can point to the notice to show that the defendant is not an “innocent infringer” and thus may need to pay higher damages.

Copyright Registration

Under current US law, you do not have to register your work to receive copyright protection. You may want to register it anyway, because copyright registration comes with certain legal benefits. If the work is registered within three months of its publication date or before a particular infringement occurs, the copyright owner can recover statutory damages (monetary awards that need not be connected to actual harm suffered by the copyright holder) and attorney’s fees if she is successful in an infringement suit. Registration is also required before the author can bring a lawsuit about use of her work. However, because registration takes time and money, many works are never registered.

Registering a copyright is not difficult. For instructions and forms, visit the US Copyright Office website. If you have any questions regarding copyright registration, the US Copyright Office has a toll-free help line at 1-877-476-0778. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright.

Online registration for a single work of which you are the sole author costs $35. In all other cases, the online registration fee is $55. The fee for registering with a paper application is $85.

Duration

Most works created in the United States today will be protected until 70 years after the death of their last surviving author. Other rules apply for certain works. For instance, if a work was created by the employee of a corporation acting within the scope of her employment, the copyright will last either 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation of the work, whichever results in a shorter term.

Before March 1, 1989, duration for published works was tied to compliance with formalities. Thus, publication date, publication status, registration, notice, and renewal all impact copyright duration. In addition, because of international treaty obligations, the nationality of the author(s) and the location of publication(s) can also impact duration. We recommend using Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's PDF handbook, Is it in the Public Domain?, to determine whether a particular work is in the public domain in the United States.

All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain in the United States.

Copyright Renewal

Prior to 1964, US law divided copyright terms into two parts: the initial term and the renewal term. At the end of the initial 28-year copyright term, the copyright holder would have to renew the copyright in order for the work to remain protected during the renewal term. If you are trying to determine whether the copyright in a work published before 1964 was renewed, the following resources are useful for renewal research: the US Copyright Catalog (records from 1978 to present), the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database (1950 to 1992 renewal records for Class A works), and the Catalog of Copyright Entries (1891 to 1978 registration and renewal records for all works). Typically, you will find renewals for all works published after 1950 in the US Copyright Catalog, while the Catalog of Copyright Entries can be useful for finding renewals of works published prior to the early 1950s. You may also want to consider working with the US Copyright Office to perform a search of its records.

Resources on Duration & Formalities