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When Copyright Does Not Apply


In certain instances, copying work is permitted:

When the orignional has lost copyright protection due to expiration of the term of copyright - such works are now in public domain

Works that are not covered by copyright - lists, ideas, and facts.


The following examples of works that you may copy and use in your own work:

Creations in the public domain - there is a massive volume of works in public-domain. Check any legal statements carefully for any special license requirements.

If you are in doubt as to whether work is in the public domain, check the application of the following statutes:

  • The 1909 Act - covers material created before Jan. 1, 1978.
  • The 1976 Act - added durther protection

Under the 1909 Act

A creator could obtain copyright protection for:

  • 28 years after publication and could then renew the copyright for a second 28-year term.
  • If the second term expired before the 1976 Act took effect, the work is in the public domain.

This means - anything first published in the USA before Jan. 1, 1922, is in the public domain.

Under the 1909 Act in second 28 year term at Jan. 1, 1978

For these works, the 1976 Act extends the copyright to a maximum total of 75 years from publication.

This means - any work published more than 75 years ago, it's public-domain material.

Work created on or after Jan. 1, 1978

For these works the duration of the copyright  is:

  • The life of the author plus 50 years, or
  • 75 years for anonymous, pseudonymous, or work-made-for-hire works

This means - you probably won't be around to worry about any of these works.


Other Instances Copyright Does not Apply

Other circumstances in which copyright protection does not apply include:

  • Ideas - Copyright DOES protect expression of ideas, but DOES NOT protect the actual ideas. You need to get patent protection for ideas.
  • Facts - facts are generally not copyrightable, however interpretations and explanations of facts may be copyrighted. For instance, contact details in a phone book is NOT copyright protected, however if the data was compiled using a specific formula or proprietary system, then copyright MAY apply.
  • Tiny parts of existing works - the de minimis doctrine allows for the copying of very small or insignificant portions of existing works. The difficulty is in agreeing with the creator what constitues a 'tiny part'. It may be claimed that this portion represents the essence of the work. 
  • Images that merge a concept with an execution - the merger doctrine applies where a concept and its execution are inextricably merged. For instance: two perspectives of the same image, where point perspective is viewed purely as a drawing technique, and as such the concept is said to be "merged" with the execution. In this case, the form execution of two-point perspective, even allowing for executions in different media, cannot be copyright protected.

When in doubt, call a copyright attorney before you use the copy.

Next: How do I get copyright protection?


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Please note that these articles about Copyright are informational only. Please consult your legal advisor.