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Copyright Guidance: Basics

Information for authors and users of copyrighted works.

Purpose Of This Guide

This guide is designed to assist Yale authors and users of copyrighted materials with consideration of practical issues addressed by United States copyright law.  These issues may include, understanding the basics of copyright law, its protections and exceptions; negotiating publisher agreements for authors; and incorporating copyrighted works in your own new works.  The information on this site is provided for your general educational information only.  It is not a substitute for legal advice nor may it pertain to your specific case.  We recommend that you consult with your own attorney or Yale’s Office of General Counsel for specific advice or approvals.

Copyright: Basics


What is copyright, what is protected by it, and who owns it?

Copyright is a law. In the United States the law is embodied in the Copyright Act of 1976 (as amended) in Title 17 of the U.S. Code. Copyright law grants to authors and creators of their works exclusive rights for using those works for a limited period of time. These protective rights encourage creators to continue to create and author new works. The law gives the creator the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce or copy the work;
  • make other derivative works based on the original;
  • distribute the works by giving, lending, or selling it;
  • perform and display the work publicly if it is literary, dramatic, musical, or choreographed, a movie or other audio-visual type; and
  • for sound recordings, exclusively perform the work publicly via digital transmission. 

Copyright protects original works of authorship that is fixed in any tangible and perceivable medium at the time of their creation for the duration of the creator's life plus 70 years.  The person(s) who created the work generally hold the copyright to that work unless it is a work made for hire or the creator transfers those rights to someone else. Works protected under copyright law are:

  • literary works;
  • musical works and any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works and any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

NOT protected are ideas or concepts | procedures | processes | systems or methods of operation | principles | or discoveries, no matter the form in which it is described, explained illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Ownership of copyright belongs to the creator(s) upon fixation in a tangible medium.  The copyright in a single work may belong to more than one person if the work is the result of a joint effort.  However, the copyright holder may have signed an agreement that the work was one made for hire and therefore, the hiring company or individual owns the copyright.  In another instance, the author may transfer or assign his/her copyright to a publisher as a condition of publication and then the publisher owns the copyright to the work.

Duration of copyright.  Copyright ownership today in the United States lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.  Once the copyright owner's term expires, the work enters the public domain.  The public domain means that the work may be used freely without the former copyright owner's permission. NOTE: The U.S. celebrated Public Domain Day on January 1, 2019 (and for every year thereafter) when works from 1923 entered the public domain.  Public domain works are no longer protected by copyright and may be used in any manner whatsoever.

How can copyrighted works be used?

With the copyright holder's permission, copyrighted works may be used by other people for a variety of other purposes.

Copyright law also provides exceptions to and limitations on the exclusive rights held by a copyright holder.  In some cases, a user does not have to seek permission from the copyright owner.  The law includes these limitations and exceptions to help foster creativity of new and different works  The exceptions, among other things:

  • help others who want to use existing copyrighted works as inspiration for new and transformational works;
  • permit libraries and archives to lend to or reproduce works for others research or preservation purposes; and
  • let buyers of physical editions to give, lend, or sell their purchased copy to someone else.

For example, fair use permits users to use bits and pieces of copyrighted musical compositions in mashups that incorporate new original music, or create parodies of original works, or allows quotes of portions of works in order to comment on the subject and make new understandings.

The exceptions allow the library to lend materials to its patrons, or make copies of portions of a work to send to patrons of other libraries, or make copies of works that are deteriorated or no longer usable on equipment for which it was originally made.

The first sale doctrine permits the owner of a CD or DVD to lend it to a friend or even sell it to an interested party.

These exceptions are explored more fully in the section Using Copyrighted Works.

Other Considerations

You may have to consider other rights when using or producing copyrighted works such as privacy or rights of publicity and trademark.  For more information on these and other copyright topics, see Yale's Rights Clearance Guide for Digital Projects.

Copyright: Yale University Policy

Copyright introduction for members of the broader Yale community:

Copyright Introduction--links to Yale General Counsel's copyright information and policies within the university.

  • Yale University Copyright Policy--Provides guidance for ownership of works created while at Yale including assigned tasks, outside funding agreements, patentable works, and where Yale has made commitments of resources.

Copyright: Academic Copying (classroom use) and Student Course Packets--provides guidelines for the reproduction and distribution of copyrighted materials for classroom and student use.

Yale's Rights Clearance Guide for Digital Projects--comprehensive guide to determine whether permission is required and if so, how to get it.  Includes worksheets and sample forms and agreements.

  • Publicity and Privacy Rights--outlines information involving publicity and privacy rights which might be involved when individuals' speaking, performing, or photo images are used.  Includes sample standard release form.

Information Technology Appropriate Use Policy--outlines policies and procedures for appropriate use of the Yale University secure network and resources, whether individuals are located on campus or accessing remotely.

Yale University Policy-Open Access to Digital Representations of Works in the Public Domain from Museum, Library, and Archive Collections (2011)

Copyright: @ YUL

For copyright information on use of Yale University Library materials and web site please visit:

Most of Yale's licensed resources are subject to copyright and may only be used for educational, research, and scholarly purposes.  Access is limited to the Yale University authorized user population, those who have been issued valid IDs, and often those who are physically on university premises.  Sharing ID and login information is strictly prohibited and may expose such a user to legal action by the information provider.


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This guide is fluid and subject to change.  If you have suggestions or feedback on this site, please contact the  Copyright Librarian & Contracting Specialist.  The information provided in this guide is for your general information purposes only and not to be construed as legal advice.  For legal advice, please consult with your own attorney or Yale's Office of General Counsel.

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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