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Copyright Essentials

Cartoon of people working on a copyright gear wheel

Image credit: Copyright machine by Dr. Mo.
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Copyright is both complex and confusing. Many people have questions about what can be used--as well as when and where and how to use--without violating copyright. Others have questions about their copyrights as an author or creator. And still, others need information on how and when to seek permission to use copyrighted material. This guide helps you answer those questions and more.

In this guide, you will find information on

Use the navigation tabs on the left to find more information for your copyright question or need. You will find helpful tools and guides listed under Resources for many of the sections

If you don't find what you are looking for, please contact  Expect a response within 24 hours, Monday - Friday. 

Disclaimer: This guide is designed as a basic informational resource for the NMSU community and is not a substitute for legal advice. Instead, it provides a framework for understanding and working with legal issues, including lawfully using and sharing copyrighted works, as well as protecting one's creative works.


In the United States, copyright is a federal law (US Code Title 17) that provides protection to creative and intellectual works as well as public access to those works. In fact, copyright is a component of the United States Constitution. Located in the section discussing the roles and powers of Congress, Article I Section 8 states that
"[t]he Congress shall have the promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Note that the promotion of the progress of science and useful arts (i.e., the public having access and ability to use copyrighted material owned by authors and inventors) takes precedence over the ownership of the work. In other words, the U.S. Constitution puts more importance on the public's access to and use of creative works than on ownership of those works. 

Copyright holders, typically authors or creators, have certain exclusive rights to their works. These exclusive rights mean that other people cannot copy or distribute their works unless the copyright holder grants permission. There are several exceptions to these rights and these are covered in this guide under fair use, classroom use, and library use. 

U.S. Copyright law protects an original work that is in a fixed, tangible medium. A fixed, tangible medium can be anything that is written down, recorded, or published.
All of these examples are copyrighted:

  • Literary or prose works: books, anthologies, articles, letters, emails, prepared speeches
  • Musical works and accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, plays, and accompanying music and scripts
  • Pantomimes, choreographic works, dances
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works: maps, paintings, drawings, photographs (print or digital)
  • Motion pictures: films, videos
  • Audio/sound recordings
  • Architectural works
  • Software and accompanying documentation
  • Websites


Uncopyrighted works are any that are:

1. In the public domain or

2. Are NOT fixed in a tangible medium 

For example:

  • Works in the public domain. Generally, public domain is anything published before 1926; for example Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Most U.S. government publications are public domain materials. For more information about what is in the public domain, check the Copyright Term chart or use the Digital Copyright Slider listed under Resources below.
  • Impromptu or extemporaneous speeches, singing
  • Listings of contents, short phrases, slogans
  • Familiar symbols, designs (stop or one way signs, copyright symbol)
  • Factual information, such as weights and measures, lists, addresses, dates. For example, a list of names and numbers in telephone book, or a listing of dates in a calendar. 
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, recipes, processes, concepts, principles as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • Information that is common property or contains no original authorship. For example height and weight charts

For more information on the public domain, click here.

Copyright owners have a bundle of rights. They can  

  • Reproduce their work
  • Distribute it
  • Prepare derivative works
  • Perform their work and
  • Display it

These rights are inseparable. In other words, a copyright owner cannot pick and choose the rights they wish to keep and those they don't. If copyright owners wish to share their work in different ways, they can apply a Creative Commons license to their work. See the Creative Commons Licenses tab for more information on sharing copyrighted works. 


  • Copyright Term and the Public Domain 

  • A thorough chart listing copyright term by material type, date of publication, and country of origin. Developed by Peter Hirtle at the Cornell University Library

  • Digital Copyright Slider
    This fun, interactive tool helps determine what is protected by copyright and what is the public domain. Developed by Michael Brewer at the American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy. 

  • The Copyright Genie
    Here's another fun and useful tool to help decide if a resource is covered by copyright. It helps to make a complex and often sleep-inducing topic fun and engaging. Note: You may get a "not a safe site" warning but this is because the site's security certificate has expired. The site is ok to use. 

Copyright Essentials © 2019 by Susan E. Beck is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0    Feel free to use this guide under the licensed terms of use.