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Copyright at VCSU: Copyright Law 101

For guidelines about copyright, fair use, and links to further resources.


U.S. Copyright Laws

Below is a list of major copyright legislation in the United States with links to the full text.

Full text of the Copyright Act, enacted in 1976, which is the primary copyright law in the United States.

A summary of the amendments made to the Copyright Act by the DMCA. The primary change affected by the DMCA is the prohibition of circumvention of technological protection measures and exemptions to this prohibition.

Amended section 110 of the Copyright Act to allow limited performance and display of copyrighted items for distance education.

Made changes to music licensing and protections for pre-1972 sound recordings.


The Rights of Copyright Holders

The Copyright Act grants creators protection in their works by bestowing upon them a bundle of exclusive rights with respect to their works: 

  • The right to reproduce/copy the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works (e.g. translations)
  • The right to distribute copies of the work by sale or lease or other transfer of ownership
  • The right to publicly perform the work
  • The right to publicly display the work
  • The right to perform audio works publicly by digital means

Copyright protection is automatic and begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Copyright protection does not require any form of copyright notice or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, although affixing a notice and registering a work enhances protection of the owner’s rights. 

What is protected by Copyright?

Not all types of works are entitled to copyright protection. See the (nonexhaustive) table below:

Copyrightable Works

Non-Copyrightable Works

Literary Works

Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g. ideas)

Musical works (including accompanying lyrics)

Short phrases, slogans, commercial symbols/colors (however, these may be protected by trademark law)

Dramatic works (including accompanying music)

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration

Choreographic works and pantomimes (must be fixed in a tangible form, e.g. recorded or notated)

Works consisting entirely of common data (e.g. calendar, government weights/measures charts) or entirely of facts (although creative assembly of facts can be subject to copyright, the facts themselves cannot)

Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

Spontaneous speeches that have not been formally fixed into a tangible form

Motion pictures and other A/V works

Spontaneous musical or choreographic works

Sound recordings

Federal government documents (mostly)

Architectural plans


Computer programs


(adapted in part from the U.S. Copyright Office "Copyright Basics" circular)

How long does Copyright Protection last?

Copyright protection does not last forever. For new works created in the United States, copyright protection lasts for the length of the author's life plus another 70 years if the work was published in the U.S. after January 1, 1978. If the work had more than one author, the “life of the author” is measured by the death of the last surviving author. If the work was published between 1978 and 1923, the work is under copyright for 95 years from the date of publication. These works can also have their copyright protection renewed.

At that time, and barring any additional factors or circumstances that affect the length of protection, the work passes into the public domain, meaning it may be legally shared, copied, and adapted without permission.

What can't be copyrighted?

There are a number of categories of material that are generally not eligible for copyright protection. A non-exhaustive list includes:

  • Ideas and facts
  • Works governed by early copyright statutes that failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection, i.e., notice, registration, and renewal requirements
  • Creations that are not fixed in a tangible form, like an improvisational comedy sketch
  • U.S. government works (although works written by non-government authors with federal funding and works produced by state governments may be copyright protected)
  • Scientific principles, theorems, mathematical formulae, laws of nature
  • Procedures, processes, and methods of operation
  • Laws, regulations, judicial opinions, and legislative reports
  • Words, names, numbers, symbols, signs, rules of grammar and diction, and punctuation

**While copyright law does not protect these elements, they may be protected under other kinds of Intellectual Property laws, such as patent, trademark, or trade secret laws.

This guide page was created using information from the Copyright Law Basics guide page from the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida; the original work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

How to Obtain Permission

Getting permissions to use copyrighted material

1. Determine if permission is needed for the work you want to use.

You will need to seek permission from the copyright holder of a work if you've determined that the material you want to use is protected by copyright, and your use does not fall under copyright exceptions like fair use.

2. Identify the copyright holder or agent.

For many publications, the publisher is the owner of the copyright and can grant permission for your use. Some publishers have online copyright permission pages that simplify the process. If the publisher is not the copyright owner, a publisher representative can often direct you to the copyright owner. For photographs or films, the copyright owners sometimes use licensing agents that will grant permission for your use, typically for a fee.

Depending on the work, permission may be required from more than one source. For example, if you wish to use a journal article with photographs, the photos’ copyrights may be owned by the photographer and not the article’s author.

3. Send a request for permission to use the material.

When sending a written request (in either hardcopy or digital form), it should include:

• precise identification of the material to be used, e.g. the title, author, and page numbers

• a photocopy of or link to the material

• the number of copies you wish to make

• the exact nature of the use, including form of distribution and whether the material will be sold

If you're having trouble…

If the copyright holder can't be located or is unresponsive (or if you are unwilling to pay a license fee), consider using alternative materials or limiting the amount so that your use qualifies as fair use.