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Copyright at OHSU

Guide to copyright basics, exemptions and use in teaching, scholarship and for students


Copyright is complicated, and trying to understand how it plays into your work and/or scholarship can be overwhelming. Learning the basics of copyright makes working with it simpler and less intimidating.

In this section, you will learn the definition of copyright, what is protected, who owns copyright and how they obtained it, and how long that copyright lasts.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of laws that protects original works of authorship in a permanent (or semi-permanent) medium of expression. It gives copyright holders the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Prepare derivative works
  • Publicly display the work
  • Publicly perform the work

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations such as fair use, which allows limited uses of works without the copyright holder's permission.

Which works are protected by copyright?

Copyright protects authors' original works. To be copyrightable, a work must involve a minimal degree of creativity and be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Unfixed works such as unrecorded speeches and improvised music or dances are not protected by copyright.

Works protected by copyright include:

  • Peer-reviewed articles

  • Scientific posters

  • Figures, data visualizations and other pictorial works

  • Literary works

  • Podcasts and other sound recordings

Works not protected by copyright include:

  • Facts or ideas

  • Titles, names, short phrases or slogans (these are covered by trademark law)

  • Procedures, methods, systems or processes

  • Works of the United States Government

  • Works that have passed into the public domain


How is copyright obtained?

Copyright is automatic. Under U.S. law, works do not have to be registered, published or have a copyright notice to be protected.

Although not legally required, it is advisable to be specific about how others can use your work if you make your work publicly available. This could include adding a Creative Commons license or a copyright notice with your contact information.

Who owns copyright?

In most cases, the creator of a work is the initial copyright owner. If two or more people create a work together, they are joint owners. Joint owners have equal rights to exercise and enforce the copyright.

If a work is created as part of a person's employment, it might be a work for hire, which means the employer is the copyright owner. In a university setting, peer-reviewed articles and other scholarly works are typically not considered works for hire.

Works-for-hire created by U.S. government employees or officials are in the public domain, but they retain copyright for works created at their own volition and outside their work duties, even if the subject matter focuses on the author's work for the government.

Copyright can be transferred from the original author(s) to another person or entity through a signed agreement. Publishing agreements often involve a transfer of copyright in which the publisher owns the rights instead of the author.

How long does copyright last?

Under current U.S. law, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. The copyright term of works for hire is either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

Different rules apply to works made before 1978. Cornell University maintains a resource that can help you determine a work’s copyright status.

When a work's copyright term expires, the work is in the public domain. This means anyone is free to reproduce, distribute or otherwise re-use the work.