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About Copyright

Duke's Scholarly Communications Office Kevin L. Smith, J.D. has published a comprehensive work for teachers and researchers:  Owning and Using Scholarship:  An IP Handbook for Teachers and Researchers.   The PDF can be downloaded and a print copy will be available at the Medical Center Library & Archives in the near future.

This site provides basic information for educators and those using copyrighted materials in presentations and scholarship.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of laws that offer the copyright owner protection over his or her intellectual property, whether it is published or unpublished. Copyright law often comes into play when people want to use a copyrighted work in some way that encroaches on these owners' rights. Copyright protections give the owner the sole rights to:
  • Reproduce the work;
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • Distribute copies of the work;
  • Display the work;
  • Perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, motion pictures or other audiovisual work. In the case of sound recordings, the owner maintains the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.)

From Copyright Basics, Circular 1, U.S. Copyright Office, available online at

What works are subject to copyright?

Almost all works are copyrighted the moment they are created. This includes articles, songs, pictures, letters, and even memos. While facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, the expression of facts or ideas can. It does not matter if the work is electronic or physical, published or unpublished.

Who owns the copyright of a work?

If a work is published, often the publisher owns the copyright. If you authored an article, check the contract you signed at publication to determine who owns the copyright. Generally if a work is not published, then the copyright belongs to the author; however, if the work was created as a "work made for hire," then the copyright can belong to the author's employer. At Duke, faculty own the copyrights to their non-published works, while staff work is considered "work made for hire."

Does a work have to have a copyright symbol to be copyright-protected?

No. Since 1989, a work is no longer required by law to contain a copyright notice in order to receive copyright protection. Just because the work doesn't list a copyright notice does not mean that it is not copyright-protected.

What do I do if I want to use a work that is copyright-protected?

Generally, you should seek permission to use the copyright-protected work. However, there are some situations in which you may use a copyright-protected work without first seeking permission; for example, if you are teaching a class at an academic institution, limited use of a copyright-protected work may qualify under the "Fair Use" clause in the Copyright Law. For some recommendations on how to follow the Copyright Law, please see our Frequently Asked Questions and Best Practices section of this site.

What's the public domain?

The public domain refers to those works that are not copyright protected and that can be used freely, without seeking permission. There are a number of ways a work may pass into the public domain, including the following, though you should always check carefully to determine that a particular work really is in the public domain before assuming that you may use it.

  • Works for which the copyright expired (see this table)
  • Works for which copyright was lost
  • Works by the federal government
  • Works "clearly and explicitly donated to the public domain"