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Copyright: Step 1: Consider whether the work is protected by copyright or is in the public domain

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

How does Copyright work?

How Copyright is Obtained

Creators today don't have to do anything to get a copyright; a work that qualifies is automatically fully protected by copyright from the moment it is first "fixed" (meaning, saved in some format, like a drawing on a chalkboard or whiteboard, or a file saved in a computer's memory). Publication is not a requirement for copyright protection and even formal registration is optional. There is also no requirement to include a copyright notice, date, the "circled c" (©) symbol, or any other information on the work in order to own a copyright.

The Types of Work Copyright Protects

Copyright protects original creative expression. Including:

  • literary works (almost all text-based media, including computer code)
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What Copyright Doesn't Protect

According to U.S. Copyright Code, 17 U.S.C. § 102(b), copyright does not apply to:

  • procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation
    These qualify for protection and ownership under patent law, and patent and copyright do not usually overlap.
  • ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries
    Broadly speaking, these are not ownable under any form of U.S. intellectual property law. This reflects important values about intellectual freedom and encouraging innovation.
  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents
    These are considered to fail the requirement of originality.
  • other unoriginal or unfixed works   

*For more details see the Copyright Law page.

The best resource to identify copyright registration (1978-present) is the U.S. Copyright Office's public catalog (and their pilot site). 

For more details on investigating the copyright status of a work, please see the U.S. Copyright Office's Circular 22 "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work." 

How does the Public Domain work?

The public domain is the collection of all expressive works for which no one owns the copyright.

Typically, a work enters the public domain in one of two ways:

  • The Copyright term ends
    In the U.S., works with authorized publication dates in the country before 1929 are in the U.S. public domain (pre-1924 sound recordings, too). For works published in other countries or published after 1928, the Copyright Slider and the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the U.S. Table can help you figure out copyright status details.
  • Copyright never existed
    All works created by the U.S. Federal Government (and federal employees in the course of their work) are in the public domain in the U.S. from the moment of their creation - there is no copyright. The exception is for works created by NWC faculty and other faculty at certain military institutions of higher education (see 17 U.S.C § 105 or the Government Works page for more details).

*For more details, please see the Public Domain page.


Adapted from George Mason University CC-BY 4.0 International License