Copyright Support

Copyright Overview

Questions? Email us at

Welcome to SMU Libraries Copyright Support. We are here to help the SMU community have a better understanding of copyright, both in an academic setting and in daily life beyond the university. We hope that our pages will provide users with the information on copyright that they need. SMU Libraries Copyright Support is managed and monitored by:

  • Timothy Binkley, Archivist, Bridwell Library
  • Melissa Johnson, Instructional Design Librarian, Business Library
  • Pamela Pagels, Theatre and Music Librarian, Hamon Arts Library
  • Robert Walker, Director, Norwick Center for Digital Solutions

We welcome questions and feedback and encourage you to e-mail us at  

The United States copyright law is contained Title 17 of the United States Code. This site, and the resources included, often will refer to the statute by chapter and section number. Here is the complete text of Title 17, U.S. Code.

General Questions

What is copyright?

Copyright is a codified system of legal guidelines that are designed to protect against the unlawful reproduction or use of the creative and artistic works and rights of creators and authors. The United States copyright law is contained in chapters 1 through 8 and 10 through 12 of title 17 of the United States Code. The Copyright Act of 1976, which provides the basic framework for the current copyright law, was enacted on October 19, 1976, as Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541. More information can be found at the U.S. Copyright Office.  

What can be copyrighted?

According to section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Law, copyright protection may apply to the following works:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works

What is not protected by copyright

Following section 102 of the law as outlined above for protected works, it follows that:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work

How long does copyright last?

The copyright duration on works created after January 1, 1978 lasts for the author’s lifetime plus an additional 70 years. This differs with works published prior and unpublished works. See U.S. Copyright Circular 15a for more information.

Questions for teachers

What is the TEACH Act

The TEACH Act, which was signed into existence in 2002 by President George W. Bush, is designed to give more freedom to instructors not only in the materials they use but also in the way in which they use them to facilitate instruction. The Copyright Clearance Center, an excellent resource for copyright-related information, in their “The TEACH Act” release sum up what an instructor can do, cannot and must do under the TEACH Act:

   The Act allows:

  • Instructors may use a wider range of works in distance learning environments.
  • Students may participate in distance learning sessions from virtually any location.
  • Participants enjoy greater latitude when it comes to storing, copying and digitizing materials

  The Act does not allow:

  • Electronic reserves, course packs (electronic or paper) or interlibrary loan (ILL)
  • Commercial document delivery

  For more on the TEACH Act requirements, see the Copyright Clearance Center’s summary.

What is Fair Use and how does it affect me?

Fair Use is an important aspect of copyright that serves as a means of interpretation for lawmakers to adjudicate whether or not an author or creator’s work has been fairly used within the system of U.S. Copyright Law. It assists in ensuring that creative, artistic and other expressive works will continue to be created and made accessible with the guaranteed underpinning that their creators’ protection and originality of their work, is in part ensured.

How do I know if a work is in the public domain?

Copyright terms can vary or be difficult to determine, depending on the date of the work’s creation and whether or not copyright was renewed. Some works are created and purposefully made available in the public domain. Peter Hirtle has created a very effective tool to determine whether or not a work is in the public domain. His tool is titled Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Use it.


Questions for students

How does copyright affect me as a student?

The works that you produce now as a student, whether undergraduate or graduate, may not only be accessible online in the future but may also be used or cited by other students or researchers. Depending upon the level of access granted to your work this future use may be wanted or unwanted. While you do have the option to legally register the copyright of your work, we recommend visiting our [Permissions and Licensing] page for more relevant information on how you can maintain the manner in which you work is used and accessed by future users.

How does copyright affect the way I produce my work?

When a student of any standing creates a piece of work, including research papers, theses, working papers, and art projects, the work will draw some aspects from other authors’ and creators’ works. The student as researcher or creator needs, in most instances, to formally credit these sources. Refer to our site sections addressing what must be copyrighted [link], what does not need to copyrighted [link] and fair use [link] to guide you.  

 Questions for researchers/creator

When is my work protected by copyright?

The moment that your work is fixed, referencing section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Law, “in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” then it is protected by copyright.

Should I legally copyright my work?

From the time of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, enacted in 1978, it is no longer necessary to legally register a work for copyright. It is considered copyrighted when created. Yet, there are benefits to legal registration, which include (1) the public record of the copyright, (2) better standing as the copyright holder should you need to file an infringement suit, (3) the registration allows “prima facie evidence” in court, (4) statutory compensation in an infringement suit, (5) and if registration is made within three months of creation, legal fees are available to the copyright owner. Reference U.S. Copyright Circular 1 for more information.

How can I obtain legal copyright of my work?

To legally copyright your work, visit U.S. Copyright Circular 1, section “Copyright Registration”, and also U.S. Copyright Circular 4, Copyright Office Fees for more information.You may also visit the Registration Portal at the U.S. Copyright Office.


For more information on copyright please visit our resource pages on Author’s Rights, Permissions and Licensing, Format and Fair Use. More questions? Email