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What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by United States law (Title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors or creators of literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and other intellectual works. From the moment of the fixation of any original work in any tangible medium, the author of that work owns a "copyright" on it. This copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to, or to authorize others to:

  • reproduce (i.e. duplicate, photocopy, etc.) the work
  • prepare a derivative work
  • distribute copies of the work
  • perform the work publicly
  • display the work publicly

The creator can sell or assign any of these rights to someone else, such as a publisher.

What is the Public Domain?

There are several categories of works which are in the public domain, meaning there are no copyright restrictions on their use.

  • If a work was published before 1923, its copyright has now expired.
  • Works produced by the United States Government are automatically considered to be in the public domain.
  • There are other odd instances where the use of a work might not be restricted by copyright (e.g. a work published between 1923-1963 whose copyright was not renewed).

Email or make an appointment with a librarian if you need help determining if a work you are interested in using might be in the public domain.

What is Fair Use?

Fair Use: Fair use (Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code) provides parameters for the legal use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. The law mandates that four factors be considered in determining whether or not a use is fair.

Learn more about the doctrine of Fair Use and the Four Factors.

What is an Orphaned Work?

An orphan work is a copyright protected work for which rightsholders are positively indeterminate or uncontactable. Sometimes the names of the originators or rightsholders are known, yet it is impossible to contact them because additional details cannot be found. A work can become orphaned because rightsholders are unaware of their holdings, or because a person has died or a publishing (or production) company has gone out of business and establishing inheritance has proved impracticable. In other cases, diligent research fails to determine the author, creator, or originator of the work.

If your need falls outside of Fair Use, LITS encourages you to do all due diligence to determine the rights-holder. If you cannot determine the rights-holder, please seriously consider your need, possible alternative solutions, and institutional risk before proceeding. Research Services librarians are available to help you assess your situation. Email us at or schedule an appointment.

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