Copyright Protection: What it Is, How it Works

Frequently asked questions to help you protect your creative work and avoid infringing the rights of others.

What role does a copyright notice play?

Until March 1, 1989, a published work had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under the copyright laws. But this requirement is no longer in force — works first published after March 1, 1989, need not include a copyright notice to gain protection under the law.

But even though a copyright notice is not required, it’s still important to include one. When a work contains a valid notice, an infringer cannot claim in court that he or she didn’t know it was copyrighted. This makes it easier to win a copyright infringement case and perhaps collect enough damages to make the cost of the case worthwhile. And the very existence of a copyright notice might discourage infringement.

Finally, including a copyright notice may make it easier for someone to track down a copyright owner and legitimately obtain permission to use the work.

What is a valid copyright notice?

A copyright notice should contain:

  • the word “copyright”
  • a “c” in a circle (©)
  • the date of publication, and
  • the name of either the author or the owner of all the copyright rights in the published work.

For example, the correct copyright notice for the current edition of The Copyright Handbook, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo) is Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Fishman.

In the United States, a copyright owner can significantly enhance the protection afforded by copyright. This is done by registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. See Copyright Registration and Enforcement.

When can I use a work without the author’s permission?

When a work becomes available for use without permission from a copyright owner, it is said to be “in the public domain.” Most works enter the public domain because their copyrights have expired.

To determine whether a work is in the public domain and available for use without the author’s permission, you first have to find out when it was published. Then apply the following rules to see if the copyright has expired:

  • All works published in the United States before 1924 are in the public domain.
  • Works published after 1923, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work is a work for hire (that is, the work is done in the course of employment or has been specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work is published.
  • Lastly, if the work was published between 1924 and 1963, you must check with the U.S. Copyright Office to see whether the copyright was properly renewed. If the author failed to renew the copyright, the work has fallen into the public domain and you may use it.

The Copyright Office will check renewal information for you, at a charge of $200 per hour. (Call the Records, Research, and Certification Section at 202-707-6787.) You can also hire a private copyright search firm to see if a renewal was filed. Finally, you may be able to conduct a renewal search yourself. The renewal records for books published from 1923 through 1963 are available online at https://exhibits.stanford.edu/copyrightrenewals. Renewal searches can be conducted at the Copyright Office in Washington D.C. or by visiting one of the many government depository libraries throughout the country.

With one important exception, you should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not. As mentioned above, you can’t rely on the presence or absence of a copyright notice (©) to make this determination, because a notice is not required for works published after March 1, 1989. And even for works published before 1989, the absence of a copyright notice may not affect the validity of the copyright — for example, if the author made diligent attempts to correct the situation.

The exception is for materials put to work under the “fair use rule.” This rule recognizes that society can often benefit from the unauthorized use of copyrighted materials when the purpose of the use serves the ends of scholarship, education or an informed public. For example, scholars must be free to quote from their research resources in order to comment on the material. To strike a balance between the needs of a public to be well-informed and the rights of copyright owners to profit from their creativity, Congress passed a law authorizing the use of copyrighted materials in certain circumstances deemed to be “fair” — even if the copyright owner doesn’t give permission.

Often, it’s difficult to know whether a court will consider a proposed use to be fair. The fair use statute requires the courts to consider the following questions in deciding this issue:

  • Is it a competitive use? (In other words, if the use potentially affects the sales of the copied material, it’s usually not fair.)
  • How much material was taken compared to the entire work of which the material was a part? (The more someone takes, the less likely it is that the use is fair.)
  • How was the material used? Is it a transformative use? (If the material was used to help create something new it is more likely to be considered a fair use that if it is merely copied verbatim into another work. Criticism, comment, news reporting, research, scholarship, and non-profit educational uses are most likely to be judged fair uses. Uses motivated primarily by a desire for a commercial gain are less likely to be fair use).

As a general rule, if you are using a small portion of somebody else’s work in a non-competitive way and the purpose for your use is to benefit the public, you’re on pretty safe ground. On the other hand, if you take large portions of someone else’s expression for your own purely commercial reasons, the rule usually won’t apply.