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Copyright law can seem rather daunting, but there are resources to help librarians navigate lawfully while fostering the free flow of information for patrons. Below, you will find some starter questions and answers about copyright protection. You can find many helpful links about copyright on the Commission's website. Additional resources are also shared at the end of this section.

What is copyright?

Copyright protects a content creator's exclusive rights to his/her own work to determine how it is used and marketed. Anyone who is not a copyright owner of a specific work must seek permission to use, reproduce, or manipulate it for their own purposes.

"Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed." - United States Copyright Office

At one time, a work was only protected by copyright after the creator registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office; however, now any time someone creates a work, they automatically own that work's copyright. This means, if you were to write a little haiku about your library right now on a scrap of paper, it would be copyright protected. Registereing your haiku would provide more legal protection since you can only sue for infringement of rights if the work is registered.

Generally, a work created after 1977 is copyright protected for seventy years after the life of the creator. Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. There are a lot more caveats to the length of copyright protection, but these are the general dates to know. Check out this chart from Cornell to see terms for various works.

What is Public Domain?

Public domain means that the public technically owns the copyright of these works and does not need to seek permission to use, reproduce, or manipulate them. Works past their copyright term, facts, obvious expressions of an idea, i.e. forms and documented procedures, federal government documents, some state government documents (can vary by state) are all in the public domain.

What is Fair Use?

The intention of copyright is to allow mutual sharing of creative and academic works while respecting the rights of the creators to benefit the progress of science and the arts. Therefore, some limitations to creators' rights are in place so that people may use works for academic pursuits without fear of repercussion. There are four conditions that must be met for use to be considered Fair Use:

  1. Purpose or reason for the use
  2. Type of work being used
  3. Amount of the work being used/copied
  4. Effect the use will have on the value/potential value of work for the copyright holder

Patrons are responsble for ensuring their own compliance with copyright and fair use when making copies at the library. However, it is good practice for the library to post a notice by all copiers and printers warning patrons that all materials are subject to copyright protection. Chapter ten of the Copyright handbook: What every writer needs to know by Stephen Fishman provides a more detailed explanation of the four Fair Use conditions and copying by libraries. You can find a copy online by searching explora on NebrasAccess.

What is DMCA?

You may hear or read this when finding out more about copyright. DMCA stands for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It was signed in to law by President Clinton in 1998. The law aimed to address digital forms of content creation and international copyright conventions.

More information:


Additional Copyright Resources:

Fishman, S. (2014). Copyright handbook: What every writer needs to know. Berkeley, CA: NOLO.

Hirtle, P. (2017). Copyright term and the public domain in the United States. Retrieved from

U.S. Copyright Office. (1998). The digital millennium copyright act of 1998: U.S. Copyright Office summary. Retrieved from


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