Working with Copyright–Protected Materials in a Digital Environment






General Information about Copyright Clearance, U.S. Copyright Law, and the U.S. Copyright Office

In identifying and researching copyright holders, it is helpful to recall basic issues about copyright law, government authorities overseeing copyright, and administrative matters pertinent to specific copyright cases.

Copyright protection, according to U.S. law, is provided to the authors of original works including literature, drama, music, art, and other kinds of intellectual property. Copyright protection is available to published and unpublished works, and extends to reproduction and public display of the works. Copyright protection exists from the time that the work is created in a fixed form. Once this occurs, copyright of a work immediately becomes the property of the author. Only the author, or an entity deriving rights through the author (such as an employer), can claim copyright.

The Copyright Act of 1976

The primary legislation governing copyright issues as defined by U.S. law is the Copyright Act of 1976.  Before the Copyright Act of 1976, federal copyright was generally secured by the act of publication with notice of copyright. Since 1976, many amendments have been attached to the Copyright Act, including the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.

Only a brief and limited summary of the Copyright Act of 1976 is provided here. However, it is helpful to become familiar with some of the basic decisions outlined in this legislation in working with copyrighted material.

The following information is found on the U.S. Copyright Office website:

  • The Copyright Act of 1976 mandates that work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death.
  • For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  • Works created before January 1, 1978 but not published or registered by that date, have been automatically brought under the statute and are now given federal copyright protection.
Works Originally Created and Published or Registered before January 1, 1978

Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured either on the date a work was published with a copyright notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright endured for a first term of twenty-eight years from the date it was secured. During the last (twenty-eighth) year of the first term, the copyright was eligible for renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from twenty-eight to forty-seven years for copyrights that were subsisting on January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of seventy-five years. Public Law 105-298, also known as the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998”, was enacted on October 27, 1998, and further extends the renewal term of copyrights still subsisting on that date by an additional twenty years, providing for a renewal term of sixty-seven years and a total term of protection of ninety-five years.

Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended the 1976 Copyright Act to provide for automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977.

Public Law 102-307 makes renewal registration optional. Therefore filing for renewal registration is no longer required in order to extend the original twenty-eight year copyright term to the full ninety-five years. However, some benefits result from making a renewal registration during the twenty-eighth year of the original term.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) enacted two World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties, the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, and contained additional provisions that addressed other copyright-related issues.
A few of the DMCA's highlights include:

  • The DMCA makes it a crime to circumvent anti-piracy measures built into commercial software, and it outlaws the manufacture, sale, or distribution of code-cracking devices used to copy software illegally.
  • It does, however, allow the cracking of copyright-protection devices in certain cases (encryption research, product interoperability tests, and security testing).
  • It limits online service providers from copyright-infringement liability for simply transmitting information over the Internet, but expects service providers to remove material from users' websites that appear to infringe copyrights.
  • It limits liability of nonprofit institutions of higher education, when they serve as online service providers, and in certain situations, for copyright infringement by faculty or students.
  • Section 404 of the DMCA provides exemptions from anti-circumvention provisions for nonprofit libraries, archives, and educational institutions under certain circumstances, updating Section 108 of the Copyright Act of 1976 to accommodate digital technologies and evolving preservation practices. It allows three digital copies of a work to be made, provided that digital copies are not made available to the public outside of the library premises. It also permits a library or archive to copy a work into a new format if the original format becomes obsolete.

The Library of Congress and The Section 108 Study Group
The Library of Congress has convened the Section 108 Study Group (, a group of copyright experts whose purpose is to investigate how Section 108 of the Copyright Act (which allows libraries and archives to make certain uses of copyrighted materials) may need to be revised to balance the needs of libraries and archives with the rights of creators and copyright holders in the age of digital media. The group will present its findings and recommendations to the Librarian of Congress in mid-2006.

Further Online Information
The U.S. Copyright Office has an extensive website ( with resources related to copyright law. A resource page (
has a list of helpful links to relevant government agencies, international organizations, and organizations that provide copyright clearance functions and services.

The Library of Congress's Section 108 Study Group has a website with information about the group's activities (