Copyright is legal protection for creative and intellectual works. Just about any fixed and tangible expression of an idea is covered by copyright, including text (such as books, articles, emails, and web-based information), photographs, art, graphics, music, and software. Copyright does not protect works that: lack originality (like the phone book), are in the public domain, are US government works, are facts, or are ideas, processes, methods, and systems described in copyrighted works.

Who holds copyright and how long does it last?

As soon as a work is created in material or persistent form (printed, published, put on a website, recorded, filmed, etc.), it is copyrighted, and therefore protected by copyright law.

Some works are placed in the public domain and then are no longer copyrighted, while some works, like government document, go automatically into the public domain. Generally, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923 or works published before 1964 for which copyrights were not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978) (Stanford University Libraries).

Most commonly, the creator of the work holds the copyright and therefore the exclusive right to the reproduction and distribution of it. However, there are cases where these exclusive rights may have been given to the person  who hired the creator or another entity.

When are uses of copyrighted works legal or illegal?

Legal: Generally, when your use falls under uncopyrightable activities, or you can obtain permission or make a “fair use” exception to your use.

Reading a book from the library, listening to  music you’ve purchased, or watching a movie you’ve rented are all legitimate personal uses of copyrighted works. Reproducing, copying, distributing, making derivative works of, publicly displaying, or publicly performing the work are not. These are the types of “uses” governed by copyright law. To use a work in a manner covered by copyright law, you must either have the copyright holder’s permission or you must qualify for a legal exception such as “fair use.” Thankfully, a wide range of uses for “educational purposes” are permissible under “fair use,” though many uses may qualify only with explicit permission. Each use must be evaluated individually to determine whether fair use applies or seeking permission is needed.

Illegal: Generally, when your activity is governed by copyright law and you do not find fair use exception or seek permissions.

If you do not secure permission from the copyright holder to use the work and if you do not qualify for a legal exception such as “fair use,” your use of a copyrighted work (generally reproduction and/or distribution) likely is illegal. Current technology allows quick and convenient access to a range of copyrighted works, but this ease of access may result in the use of works without a full understanding of rights and user responsibilities.

Why is authorized use of copyrighted works important?

As members of the academic community, we value the free exchange of ideas as well as the need to properly recognize the source of ideas. We respect the intellectual and creative property of others and do not condone plagiarism or the unauthorized use and distribution of these works.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act and CU Boulder: Termination Policy for Infringement

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act amends federal copyright law to provide certain liability protections for online service providers, including the University of Colorado Boulder, when their computer systems or networks carry materials that violate copyright law. If you believe your copyright has been infringed on a website hosted by the university, email

Send other reports of computer abuse to abuse@Colorado.EDU

For more information on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, visit the United States Copyright Office website.

Acknowledgement: Portions of this page have been excerpted, with permission, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Copyright Policy and from the University of Michigan's "Copyrights at the University of Michigan."

This site is not intended to provide legal advice about copyright.