This page provides general information about copyright, copyright registration, and the public domain.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights for those who have made, or own the rights to, creative works. It applies to fixed works, such as books, blogs, and paintings. Creative works are one type of intellectual property. Other types of intellectual property, such as inventions and logos, are protected by different laws—patents and trademarks, respectively. The authors of the U.S. Constitution originally granted copyright for a term of 14 years; but, since 1998, copyright protection typically lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years.

What are a copyright holder’s rights?

Copyright gives creators (or rights holders) four specific rights, often referred to as a “bundle” of rights. Copyright owners have the right to control 1) copies/reproductions, 2) distribution, 3) derivative works, and 4) public display, performance, or transmission of their works. UT faculty and researchers should be aware of their rights as authors before signing publication agreements.

Registering Copyright

Since 1998, anything created in a fixed way (written, painted, emailed) is automatically copyrighted to the creator and no label or notice is needed for copyright to be granted. Creators may add a copyright notice to their work (example: © 2015 Your Name). Registering copyright is also an option. For a fee, creators may register their copyright with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress for a formal record of their copyright claim.

Copyright Term

Copyright typically lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years. Exceptions to this term include but are not limited to:

  • Works made for hire: These are works made for an employer or corporation. Copyright term in these cases is usually 120 years from the time of creation.
  • Unpublished works, such as letters between family members.
  • Orphan works: Works with unknown creators and/or creation dates.
  • Works in the Public Domain: Creators may dedicate their work to the Public Domain, giving everyone rights to the work.
  • International works: Copyright law varies from country to country.

The Public Domain

When creative works are in the public domain, the work is not under copyright. Another way to think of this is that the public owns the copyright – everyone has the right to share, distribute, change, or display the work. Works can either pass into the public domain or be dedicated to it.

Works pass into the public domain after their term of copyright ends. Most works published before 1923 are in the Public Domain. For works published in 1923 or after, consult “When Works Pass Into the Public Domain,” by a UNC faculty member, and/or “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” by a Cornell faculty member. For works of unknown publication date, consult Securing Permissions.

For those who wish to dedicate their works to the Public Domain, consider using a tool or license from Creative Commons.

What are UT’s policies and principles?

The information on this page was not written by a lawyer and does not constitute legal advice.

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