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Copyright law originally comes from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” -- this can be a novel, photo or a piece of music, but also more casual creations like emails, blog posts, and posts on social media.

For a work to be “original,” it must meet two criteria:

  • Independent creation (it can’t be copied from another work)
  • It must exhibit at least a small amount of creativity.

In order to be protected with a copyright, works also have to be “fixed in a tangible medium.” That medium can be paper, canvas, clay, the memory card on your camera or phone, the hard drive on your computer, or even in the cloud.

For works created after 1989, no registration or publication is required – copyright protection arises automatically, even if there is no copyright notice accompanying the work.

Copyright holders have a number of exclusive rights, including the rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, and publicly display their works, and create derivative works.

Generally speaking, for works created after 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years (if the work cannot be tied to an author’s life, the term is 120 years from creation or 100 years from publication, whichever is shorter).

For works created before 1978:

  • Works published in the U.S. before 1927 are in the public domain as of January 1, 2022. Each January, that date moves forward another year; on January 1, 2023, works published in the U.S. before 1928 will move into the public domain as well.
  • Works created by federal government employees within the scope of their employment are not copyrighted.
  • Works that failed to comply with formalities where required, or whose copyright has expired are also in the public domain.

For all other works, please refer to Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain chart.