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Copyright: Introduction

A Note about Plagiarism

Some works are not copyrighted, for example works where the copyright has expired, or works by the federal government.  However, the rules of attribution, meaning citing the sources of information used in your own work, still apply.  Even when using out of copyright works, it is important to properly cite the sources you've used.  Failure to do so is a violation of Plymouth State University's Academic Integrity Policy

Books on Copyright


Copyright is a bundle of rights that belongs to the creator to incentivize the creation of new works.  As codified in 17 US Code, the creator of a work has the exclusive right of

  • Reproduction (the right to control all forms of copying of the work);
  • Translation, abridgment, revision (the right to control derivative works);
  • Public distribution; and
  • Public performance and display.

What can be copyrighted?

Copyright exists in any original work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible form.  Copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works: works, other than audiovisual works, expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books, periodicals, manuscripts, phonorecords, film, tapes, disks, or cards, in which they are embodied
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, including two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works: audiovisual works consisting of a series of related images which, when shown in succession, impart an impression of motion, together with accompanying sounds, if any
  • Sound recordings: works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as disks, tapes, or other phonorecords, in which they are embodied
  • Architectural worksthe design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings

What cannot be copyrighted?

The following cannot be copyrighted, but may be covered by other intellectual property systems such as trademarks or patents:

  • Ideas (While the expression of an idea can be copyrighted, the idea itself cannot.  For example the idea of prime numbers is not copyrightable, but a work that describes the concept, gives examples or applications is copyrightable.)
  • Facts
  • Slogans and short phrases
  • Names and titles
  • Useful objects
  • Works by the U.S. federal government

How long does copyright last?

 Currently, for works published in the United States, the length of the copyright term is life of the author plus 70 years, and unpublished works are protected for 120 years from the date of their creation.

US copyright law has changed many times over the years.  The length of a copyright term depends on what laws were in force at the time of creation of the work.  The Digital Copyright Slider can help you determine if a work is still protected by copyright. 


Contact Christin Wixson, Scholarly Communication Librarian if you have questions about

  • copyright
  • decisions about publishing options
  • open access
  • author rights
  • self-archiving
  • journal & article impact metrics
Creative Commons License
Copyright Guide by Christin Wixson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.