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According to the U.S. Copyright Office,  this form of intellectual property law “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.  Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.” In practical terms, copyright laws are designed to protect the original work of an author from unauthorized use. 


What is Copyright-Protected? What is Not?


  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works
  • Computer software

Not Copyright-protected

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression; written, recorded or captured electronically
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration
  • Works consisting entirely of information that are natural or self-evident facts, containing no original authorship, such as the white pages of telephone books, standard calendars, height and weight charts and tape measures and rulers
  • Works created by the U.S. Government
  • Works for which copyright has expired; works in the public domain

What about Copyright and Digitization?

An excellent resource to consult is Copyright & Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Museums, and Archives [PDF] (Hirtle, Hudson & Kenyon, 2009). It has chapters on fair use, exemption for libraries and archives, finding owners of copyright, and case studies on oral histories and dissertations and theses.

For more information on finding works in the public domain, See this Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online published by The Public Domain Review


Four Factors of Fair Use

The Fair-Use Statute, Section 107 includes four factors for evaluation to determine if something falls under  an allowed “fair use.”   The statute is broad on purpose to allow for interpretation and flexibility:

And the section concludes: “The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.”

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes [“educational purposes” can sometimes, but not always,  be a strong factor that allows copying to qualify under fair use  guidelines]
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work [a compilation of facts is more likely to constitute fair use, rather than a copyrighted song].
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole [the smaller the amount copied, the more likely that it will be allowed under fair use].
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work [content considered to have low market value may be a better candidate for fair use].

And the section concludes: "The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors."

More information on Four Factors:


What Dates and Formats Are Covered by Copyright Law?


Legal Media Downloads


More Resources on Copyright