When Does Copyright Apply?

What works are protected?

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. sound recordings
  8. architectural works

These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most “compilations” may be registered as “literary works”; maps and architectural plans may be registered as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”

When does copyright expire?

Although the duration of copyright protection varies depending upon the type of work and when it was created, no copyright protection lasts forever. Once it expires, it enters the public domain and can be used by anyone without permission. These resources will help you determine if material you wish to use is in the public domain:

What is NOT protected?

When does copyright protection not apply to a piece of intellectual property? Aside from having an expired copyright (see above), there are two general cases:

1. Categories of works that are ineligible for protection.

Certain categories of material are not eligible for federal copyright protection. According to the Copyright Office, these include:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)

2. Works created entirely by the U.S. government.

Works created by the U.S. government are not eligible for U.S. copyright protection. This applies only to works entirely prepared by an officer or employee of the government, however. Works created by government contractors or grant recipients still receive copyright protection.


Copy Photography Computator
This online decision tool from the Visual Resources Association (VRA) helps you gauge whether images you wish to use are copyright protected.

Search Copyright Records: Registrations and Documents 1978-Present
Published by the United States Copyright Office

This page includes two ways to search copyright records: eCO Search, which is their new and more user-friendly search of all records from 1978 to the present, and their older LOCIS (Library of Congress Information System) Search System. These systems search registered items as well as copyright documentation (indicating ownership, change of ownership, and the like). Both systems are unavailable from 5:00pm on Saturdays until noon on Sundays, eastern time. (That's 6:00pm on Saturdays until 1:00pm on Sundays, central time.)

Selected Copyright Renewal Registration, 1950-1977
By the United States Copyright Office, Published by Project Gutenberg
Works published between 1923 and 1977 had to carry a copyright notice in order to be protected, and the copyright had to be renewed after 28 years (see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States). Without this renewal, the works passed into the public domain. Copyright renewal notices were published by the United States Copyright Office, and Project Gutenberg has digitized most of these records for renewals that occurred between 1950 and 1977. For records 1978 to the present (with a several-month delay), search the copyright office's copyright records database.

Copyright Renewal Records
Published by Michael Lesk of Rutgers University
Michael Lesk has made his database of copyright renewals available online. This is a great place to check after you have gone through the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart and need to determine whether copyright was renewed.