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Provides a general overview of copyright issues for University of Maryland faculty and students.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal right, grounded in the United States Constitution, that gives the owner of copyright in a work the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (make copies of ) the work; and
  • Modify or prepare derivative works based on the work. (Examples of derivative works include translations, transforming printed works into musicals or films, rearrangements of scores, and any other recast, transformation or adaptation of a work); and
  • Distribute the work in any format by sale, publication, license, rental, or for free; and
  • Publicly perform or display the work; and
  • Authorize others to exercise some or all of those rights

Duration of Copyright

Copyright applies for a limited term. The length of that term depends on when the work was first created, whether or not it has been published, and whether the work was first published in the US or abroad.

Suffice it to say that for works created in the US today, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator and in the case of a corporate author (which could include works for hire), copyright lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

When the copyright term in a work expires, the work loses copyright protection and enters the public domain.  See "Public Domain Defined" below.

To determine the copyright term for all other works, consult the Cornell University chart "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States."

What is Protected by Copyright?

Original works, whether or not published, that exist in a tangible medium that can be touched, seen, heard, read and fall into one of the following categories are protected by copyright.

Copyright applies to a wide variety of works including, but not limited to:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, lyrics, and sound recordings
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Visual works (photographs, paintings, sculptures, maps, logos, etc.)
  6. Multimedia works, movies, and other audio-visual works
  7. Software code
  8. Architectural works, etc.

These works are protected from the moment they are in a fixed format regardless of whether they contain a copyright notice or copyright has been registered.

Items not protected include, but are not limited to:

  1. Titles, names, slogans
  2. Ideas, procedures, methods, principles, concepts, systems
  3. Works lacking originality (calendars, tape measures, rulers, etc.)
  4. Works created by employees of the U.S. Government in the course of their employment
  5. Works comprised entirely of public domain information

Public Domain Defined

The following works are in the public domain and can be used by anyone for any legal purpose without permission.

  • Works created by U.S. government employees in the scope of their employment
  • Works for which copyright protection has expired
  • Works that do not contain the requisite originality (e.g., facts, blank forms)
  • Works that contain a notice from the copyright owner expressly rejecting any claim of copyright and placing the work in the public domain

Unless you are sure a work you find on a website falls into one of these four categories, you must assume the work is protected by copyright.  See Using Copyrighted Material.