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Why is Copyright so Complicated?

Copyright is the law. (Title 17 of the US Code, to be exact.)


Copyright law has been reviewed, refined and modified since its inception in 1790.

brief history of United States copyright law is available from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. (Source: Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University)

The Copyright Act of 1976 is the basis for current copyright law. It was enacted into law in 1976 and went into effect on January 1, 1978. (Source: US Copyright Office)

The Copyright Term Extension Act (or Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) extended terms for works under copyright by 20 years, delaying the time when these works enter the public domain. It was enacted into law in 1998. (Source: US Government Printing Office, Public Law 105 -298)

The table below shows the extension of copyright terms as the law has evolved since 1790 with copyright act revisions:

Copyright Terms

Copyright Act Revisions and the Duration of Copyright Terms
Image Source: Tom Bell, Trend of maximum U.S. General Copyright Term, URL:
(C) 1999-2008 Tom W. Bell. All rights reserved. Fully attributed noncommercial use of this document permitted if accompanied by this paragraph. (accessed December 1,2015)


Where can I determine if a work is under copyright?

Is the work Covered by Copyright?
Consult the Copyright Genie
(Source: ALA Office of Information Technology Policy)

When works pass into the Public Domain (Source: Lolly Gassoway, University of North Carolina)

Stanford Copyright Renewal Database (Source: Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources) This site allows you to search books created from 1923-1963 to determine if the copyright term was renewed. If the copyright wasn't renewed, then the item should reside in the Public Domain.

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Questions? Contact the Libraries' Scholarly Communications Officer: Elizabeth Brown, (607) 777-4882.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. 

Last Updated: 2/10/17