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Copyright Basics

Purdue Fort Wayne & Purdue University Policies

What is Copyright?

Copyright law protects "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device" (Title 17, Section 102a.) The protection is granted for a limited period at which time copyright expires and works become part of the public domain.

In general copyright holders have the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:  

  • reproduce the work
  • prepare derivative works based upon the work, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works...
  • perform the work publicly means of a digital audio transmission 

From U.S, Code,Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 106

What is Protected?

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.”

From U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 102

What is not protected?

Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. 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  
  • Materials that have passed into the public domain
  • 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)

From United States Copyright Office. Copyright Basics, Circular 1

What Is Public Domain?

Materials in the public domain may be copied, altered, and otherwise used freely. These materials do not have copyright because their copyright either was waived or forfeited, has expired, or was not applicable. For example, works created by the United States government are in the public domain in the United States as they are excluded from copyright. Works by authors like Mark Twain and Jane Austen are in the public domain because the authors died over 100 years ago, and their works' copyright has expired.

For more information, consult:

Insert link to copyright guide here

What Is Creative Commons?

According to, "Every [Creative Commons] license helps creators -- we call the licensors if they use our tools -- retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work -- at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures licensors get the credit for their work they deserve. Every Creative Commons license works around the world and lasts as long as applicable copyright lasts (because they are built on copyright)."

There are different use allowances with the different types of Creative Commons, or CC, licenses:

Creative Commons license types

By foter - (image was available: infographic CC.jpg (JPG). Archived from the original on 14 February 2017.), CC BY-SA 3.0,

When and how do works become copyrighted?

Copyright protection is secured automatically from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright immediately becomes the property of the author(s) who created the work. Only the author(s) or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright. The authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright in the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. In the case of works made for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author. 

Even though registration and the use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law for protection, the copyright law provides several advantages to encourage copyright owners to make registration:

  • Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim
  • Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin
  • If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner

(From United States Copyright Office. Copyright Basics, Circular 1

Who is the copyright owner?

In general, the author(s) who create the work and establish it in a tangible medium of expression immediately become the copyright owner(s). Only the author(s) can rightfully claim copyright.

If two or more authors jointly create a work, they are co-owners of the copyright in the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary.  The concept of joint authorship is not the same in copyright law as it is in scholarly communications.  Copyright protection is granted equally to all authors and does not recognize any one author, first or last, as having more copyright protection than the other(s). Under the law each author can decide individually to transfer part or all copyright protections to another party, such as a publisher. 

In the case of works made for hire, i.e. a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment, or a work specially commissioned, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.

Note that, by tradition, faculty retain copyright in their scholarly and creative works and are not treated as "works for hire." 

From U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright Basics, Circular 101

How long does copyright last?

  • A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death.
  • In the case of “a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.
  • For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

The duration of copyright for works created before January 1978 is complex.  There are a variety of tools available to determine when or if a work is still protected by copyright.

From U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright Basics, Circular 101

See Copyright Permissions tab in this guide for tools that can help determine copyright status.