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Copyright basics

Copyright law deals with the creation, reproduction, distribution, performance, and display of creative or expressive works. Eight types of works are copyrightable:

  • Literary, musical, and dramatic works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Sound recordings
  • Motion pictures and other AV works
  • Computer programs
  • Compilations of works and derivative works
  • Architectural works

A work is copyrighted once it has been fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as being written or recorded. After March 1, 1989, works no longer require a copyright notice or registration to receive protection.

Many things cannot be copyrighted:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processors (many of these can be patented, however)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans (these could be trademarked)
  • Facts and news
  • Works in the public domain (includes publications of the US federal government and works published in the US before 1923)
  • Works not fixed in a tangible medium of expression (off-the-cuff speeches that have not been previously written or recorded)

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. Corporate authors receive 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. Works created and published prior to 1978 vary in term: do not assume these have entered the public domain. See ALA's digital copyright slider for specifics.


Contact us

  •     Gail McMillan
  • Gail M McMillan
  • Director, Digital Library and Archive
  • 540-231-9252
  • gailmac@vt.edu
  • 2036 Newman Library (0434)
    560 Drillfield Drive
    Blacksburg, VA 24061