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About This Guide
This guide is a collection of resources to help you assess whether and how you can use a copyrighted work. It is not legal advice and not a substitute for legal advice.
Is Work Protected by Copyright?
The first question in determining whether you can use a work that may be copyrighted is whether the work actually is the type protected by copyright. If it is not, then you may be able to use the work and not run afoul of copyright law. To determine this, consider:
- Is it the type of work protected by the Copyright Act?
- Is it the type of work excluded from protection under the Copyright Act?
- If it is the type of work protected by the Copyright Act, has it fallen into the public domain?
To help answer these questions, see the resources on this page.
Is This the Type of Work Protected by the Copyright Act?
The Copyright Act does not protect all works. It covers original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, including, but not limited to, literary, musical, dramatic, pantomime, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion picture, audiovisual, sound recording, and architectural works. 17 U.S.C. § 102.
If the work you want to use does not fit in this definition, for example if the work is not original or fixed, then you may be able to use it. Copyright does not protect ideas standing alone, it only protects the expression of ideas. Copyright also does not protect facts alone, as those are not original, but may protect the original expression of facts.
- For the statutory sections discussing what is covered by copyright, see Chapter 1 of the Copyright Act, Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright.
- For the general definition of what is covered by copyright, see 17 U.S.C. § 102, Subject Matter of Copyright: In General.
- For a list of the rights of the copyright owner, see 17 U.S.C. § 106, Exclusive Rights in Copyrighted Works.
- For a Copyright Office explanation of what is protectable under copyright, see Circular 1 Copyright Basics and Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- For a discussion of works outside the scope of copyright, see Kenneth Crews, Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators, Third Edition, Chapter 3, KF 2995 .C74 2012.
What Types of Works Are Not Protected by the Copyright Act?
Particular types of works excluded from copyright protection:
- Ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries, regardless of the form in which they are described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work. See 17 U.S.C. § 102(b); 37 C.F.R. § 202.1; Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- Words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans. See 37 C.F.R. § 202.1; Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- Familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring. See 37 C.F.R. § 202.1; Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- Mere listing of ingredients or contents. See 37 C.F.R. § 202.1; Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- Blank forms, such as time cards, graph paper, account books, diaries, bank checks, scorecards, address books, report forms, order forms and the like, which are designed for recording information and do not actually convey information. See 37 C.F.R. § 202.1; Circular 33 Works Not Protected by Copyright.
- Works consisting of information that is common property without original authorship, such as: calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers, schedules of sporting events, and lists or tables take from public documents ro other common sources. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1.
- Works of the United States federal government. 17 U.S.C. § 105.
What Types of Works Are in the Public Domain?
Even if a work may have been protected under copyright, it can fall in the public domain:
- after its term expires;
- or if it was published before January 1, 1978 without a copyright notice or with inadequate copyright notice.