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Copyright and Fair Use

A review of current copyright issues and fair use guidance, with a focus on theological study and research.

Copyright Basics - What, When, and For How Long?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that provides authors of original creative works with limited control over the reproduction and distribution of their work. Under the current law, copyright protection is automatic and begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 

The Copyright Act gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce their work, in whole or in part,
  • distribute copies of their work,
  • publicly perform their work,
  • publicly display their work, and
  • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations.

These exclusive rights, however, are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as fair use, which allow limited uses of copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright holder. Please visit the other sections of this Guide to learn more about fair use and other copyright issues.

What is Protected and Not Protected By Copyright

Copyrightable Works Not Copyrightable

Literary works

Works not fixed in a tangible form (e.g., ideas)
Musical works (including accompanying lyrics) Short phrases, slogans, commercial symbols/colors. (NOTE - these may be protected by other intellectual property laws such as trademark law)
Dramatic works Procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration. (NOTE - these may be protected by other intellectual property laws such as patent law)
Choreographic works and pantomimes (must be fixed in a tangible form, e.g., recorded or notated) Works consisting entirely of common data or entirely of facts (e.g, calendar, telephone book, weights/measures charts)
Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works Spontaneous speeches that have not been formally fixed into a tangible form
Motion pictures and other A/V works Spontaneous musical or choreograph works
Sound recordings Federal government documents (mostly). Some state government documents (see for a guide to copyright status of state government documents)
Architectural plans  
Computer programs  

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyright protection does not last forever. For new works created in the United States, protection begins with creation of the work and lasts 70 years after the date of creation. Upon expiration of the term of protection, the work passes into the public domain. For older works created in the United States, passage into the public domain depends on a variety of factors including publication status, recordation of notice, and registration. Further, for foreign copyrighted works, it is possible that works once considered to be in the public domain may have had their copyright protection restored.  See Public Domain tab of this Guide for more information on locating items in the public domain.

Resources for Determining Public Domain Status of a Work


Copyright Webinars from Atla

SCOOP Column from Atla Newsletter

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Copyright Resources for Libraries



This guide was created by Christine Fruin, Scholarly Communication and Digital Projects Manager at the American Theological Library Association.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License