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This guide will inform you on copyright and issues pertaining to the use of copyrighted materials. It will not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of the office of General Counsel. If you cannot find the answer to your question

Welcome to the FAMU University Libraries Copyright LibGuide!

This guide will inform you on copyright and issues pertaining to the use of copyrighted materials.  It will not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of the office of General Counsel.  If you cannot find the answer to your question here or would like to arrange a consultation, please feel free to ask your copyright librarian.

Permission to use and modify this guide was obtained from LeEtta Schmidt of  the University of South Florida Library.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. 


Copyright protection exists from the moment a work is fixed in a tangible form of expression (This could include a DVD, CD, even a napkin with writing on it).  It is the right granted by law to an author or creator to control the use of the work created. This allows the owner of the copyrighted material to:

  •  Make copies (A copy is the reproduction of an original work, here are some examples of what would be considered a "copy":  download, PDF email attachment, photocopy or scan, etc.)
  •  Distribute copies (including using the internet)
  •  Prepare derivatives based on the original work (like a sequel or spin-off)
  •  Perform the work publicly
  •  Display the work publicly

(Video courtesy of University of South Florida)

What is protected?

Under the copyright act, section 102, the following is protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

How long is a work protected by copyright?

Works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years per the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act which applied to works created from 1978 onwards.  The protected status of works published before 1978 and after 1923 varies in accordance with how they were published, registered, and renewed.   Due to the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, materials published, registered, and renewed in the U.S. between 1923 and 1978 stopped falling into the public domain for twenty years, which meant that only material published before 1923 were reliably in the public domain.  On January 2019, items published in 1923 in the U.S. had  their copyright expire. 

Copyright law and duration varies per country.  However, several countries have worked together to create international agreements that align policies across borders.  Foreign works are, for the most part, protected for the same term as works published within the user's country for all signatories of the Berne and TRIPS agreements.  The U.S. is both an adopter of the Berne convention and a party of the TRIPS agreement.

What is the Public Domain?

The Public Domain is a state of belonging to the public as a whole and not being protected by copyright law.  Works in the public domain are those for which copyright protection has expired, been forfeited or were inapplicable.  They can be copied, distributed, performed and displayed without seeking permissions or applying to an exception under copyright law.  For example:

  • Expired:  Copyright protection for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, first published in 1813, has expired.  It is in the public domain.
  • Forfeit:  Copyright protection for Sita Sings the Blues  has been forfeited by the creator Nina Paley in a public announcement updated in 2011. 
  • Inapplicable:  U.S. Federal Government publications are not granted copyright protection at all.  All U.S. Federal Government publications fall immediately into the public domain.  (note:  publications made by third parties under government contract and by state governments (for example) are considered differently by the law and may be protected by copyright.)

There are a few handy tools that can help you determine if a work is in the public domain:

How can I use copyrighted work?

(Video courtesy of LeEtta Schmidtt, Copy Right Librarian, University of South Florida.)


There are several ways you can use copyrighted work.

  • You can link to the material.  Linking to an image or public website is not copying.  While you should still cite and give attribution to the owner of the website, it is not usually required to request permission to link to a publicly available website.
  • You can request permissions from the copyright owner.
  • You can use the work in accordance with an existing license.  For instance:
    •   1.) The library negotiates licenses to online content that allow for classroom and reserves use. 
    • 2.)The work may be issued under a creative commons license where the creator has clearly established what others can do with his work.
  • Your use may fall under exceptions and limitations of copyright law, like fair use, section 108 for libraries, or the T.E.A.C.H. Act

Get more information: