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Where to Begin

Are you dealing with a copyrighted work?

Is the work in the public domain? Generally, works created prior to 1928 (as of Jan. 1, 2023) are in the public domain. See the public domain page to identify works. 

If the work is copyrighted, pursue these paths. 

Does the work bear a Creative Commons license permitting certain uses?

  • ​​Look for license symbols or letters like: CC BY, By-SA, CC0, BY-NC, BY-ND, BY-NC-SA, BY-NC-ND.
  • See Creative Commons license explanations

Is the work licensed by the University in which case the copyright is covered for you?

  • Check the University Libraries' databases.
  • Check if it is licensed by your department. 
  • If licensed and your use is permitted by that license, proceed as the license permits. 

If the work is not in the public domain or licensed for use, is there a legal exemption to copyright law that would allow you to use the work? Examples:

  • Section 110 (1) covering face-to-face classroom performance and display ("Media in the Classroom" page)
  • The TEACH ACT (Section 110(2)) covering digital transmissions for performance and display

If the work is not licensed or covered by an exemption, consider the Fair Use exemption. 

  • Fair Use (Section 107) is also an exemption, but it is the vaguest and riskiest, so consider it last in your process. See the Fair Use page.

If none of the above allows you to use a copyrighted work, seek permission which may involve paying royalties. 


Copyright Basics

What does copyright cover?

Copyright covers "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression."
Those notes you scribbled on a napkin at the coffee shop are a fixed tangible medium of expression.
Copyright protection is automatic from the moment of creation.

Is a work copyrighted if it doesn't have the copyright symbol?

Yes, a creative work is copyrighted from the moment it is "fixed" in any "tangible medium of expression."  The copyright symbol used to be required, but as of the signing of the Berne Convention in 1988, the symbol is no longer required.
(Copyright Office Circular 3)

Is a work copyrighted if it is not registered with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.?

Creators and authors are not required to register their work. Copyright still takes effect without it. However, if a work is registered, authors are entitled to certain remedies in case of infringement that they would not otherwise be entitled to.

What kinds of works are covered by copyright?

  • literary works
  • musical works including words
  • dramatic works including the music
  • pantomimes and choreographed works
  • pictoral, graphic and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Not covered: ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, discoveries, recipes
(Copyright Law of the US)

What is the term (length) of copyright?

The term of copyright is life of the author plus 70 years.

In situations where a work is commissioned or created by an employee "within the scope of employment," the term for a "work for hire" is "95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation." (Copyright Office Circular 30)

Digital Slider

 for determining copyright status
 (Copyright Advisory Network)




What are the exclusive rights of a copyright holder?

  1. To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  2. To prepare derivative works
  3. To distribute copies or phonorecords to the public by sale, or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending.
  4. In case of literary, musical or dramatic or choreographic works, pantomimes, and  motion pictures or other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  5. In case of literary, musical or dramatic or choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictoral, graphic or sculptural works, including individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work
  6. In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

Is my dissertation or thesis copyrighted?

Yes, automatically, and registration is not required with the Copyright Office. There are, however, advantages to registering if you wish to be able to seek damages in the case of infringement.

What does phonorecord mean today?

Phonorecords are "material objects in which sounds, other than those accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, are fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the sounds can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term “phonorecords” includes the material object in which the sounds are first fixed. (Copyright Law Section 101 Definitions)


The Public Domain

A work in the public domain is not protected by copyright. You are free to copy the entire work. In the United States, works published before 1928 (as of Jan. 1, 2023) are in the public domain.

Are government documents in the public domain?

The majority of documents published by the federal government are in the public domain. There are some exceptions. The federal government outsources some of its research and publications to private publishers. Those works may be copyrighted. Check the specific document.

Many state and county publications may be copyrighted; they are not necessarily in the public domain.

How do I know if a work from 198 or later is in the public domain?

This is a difficult question with no quick answer. The copyright for some works published prior to the 1976 law may not have been renewed. The Copyright Office maintains a database of copyright registrations back to 1978. The Copyright Office also publishes a circular How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work. Prior to 1978, the Copyright Office can do a manual search of it records for a fee.

A work can also be an "orphan work" meaning that it may still be under copyright, yet no rights holder can be found.  

To explore further...

  • Catalog of Copyright Entries and Catalogue of Title Entries volumes (Internet Archive). Coverage: all volumes, 1891-1978.
  • Search of scans of the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Google Books) offers full-text search and linking to the 91 volumes of copy registrations from 1922 to 1977. Coverage: Original and renewal registrations for books, pamphlets, and contributions to periodicals 1922-1977 (except for 1952, when only book registrations and renewals are available.)
  • Stanford maintains a Copyright Renewal Database. This database covers copyright "renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for books published in the US between 1923 and 1963. Note that the database includes ONLY US Class A (book) renewals."
  • The University of Pennsylvania provides a copyright renewals list covering renewals between 1950 - 1978 for books published between 1923-1950.
  • Project Gutenberg maintains selected renewal record transcriptions for 1950-1977.
  • The University of Michigan University Library (Ann Arbor) was awarded an IMLS grant to create a copyright review management system (CRMS) to increase the reliability of determining copyright status of books published between 1925 and 1963. This work now feeds into the HathiTrust Digital Library


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Let's copy it right

A Guide to Copyright for UMKC Educators and Students

Contact us at: 

 Nothing on this guide is to be construed as legal advice.
These pages are intended to provide information and guidance in the application of copyright law and
to expand on the University of Missouri System Collected Rules and Regulations.


Creative Commons License
Let's Copy It Right: A Guide to Copyright for UMKC Educators and Students by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License.