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Copyright Guide: Determining the Copyright Status of a Work

Determining a Work's Copyright Status

Copyright laws have changed over the years, so it often takes some investigation to determine a work's copyright status.  You'll need to know one or more of the following:

  • Copyright and License information
  • If and when the work was published
  • If the work was registered and renewed with the U.S. Copyright Office
  • The birth and/or death date of the author

Copyright Information and License Information

Sometimes copyright information will be readily available. This will tell you whether the content is copyrighted and whether permission is required.

Places to look for this information include:

  • Front Matter of a Book (the first few pages before the main text)
  • Captions for published images and pictures
  • Copyright or Permissions page on a website

Renewal Records

Copyright Term Limits

Unpublished Works

If a work has not been published, the following copyright terms apply:

  • Life of the author, plus 70 years.  If the author died before 1942, you do not need permission.
  • If the author and/or death date is unknown, 120 years from date of creation.  If the unpublished work was created before 1892, you do not need permission.  

Published Works

The copyright status of a published work varies depending on when it was published and whether or not the work was registered, renewed, or published with a copyright notice.  

Published without a copyright notice:

  • Published without a notice before 1978:  You do not need permission.
  • Published without a notice between 1978 and March 1, 1989:
    • Not registered within 5 years of publication:  You do not need permission.
    • Registered within 5 years of publication:  Life of the author, plus 70 years; you will need permission to use the work.
  • Published without a notice after March 1, 1989:  The work has copyright protection; you will need permission to use the work.

Published with a copyright notice:

  • Published with a notice before 1924:  You do not need permission.
  • Published with a notice between 1924 and 1963:
    • Copyright was not renewed:  You do not need permission.
    • Copyright was renewed:  95 years after the publication date; you will need permission to use the work.
  • Published with a notice from 1964 to present:  The work has copyright protection; you will need permission to use the work.

Not sure if a work has been registered or renewed?  Ask a Librarian.


This site is intended for informational purposes only.  Library staff members cannot give legal advice.  For legal advice, you should contact an intellectual property attorney.

Meet with a Librarian

Meet with a research librarian to discuss a copyright question.

Warning about Copyright Notices

A copyright notice can provide information about a work's copyright status, but the lack of a copyright notice does not mean a work is not copyrighted.  Remember that a work does not have to be registered or even published to have copyright protection.

Davidson College Library Research Guides are licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Mailing Address: Davidson College - E.H. Little Library, 209 Ridge Road, Box 5000, Davidson, NC 28035