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How copyright law works

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

—Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution



Copyright is a temporary monopoly on use of a creative work provided to the creator by a government. So to know whether something you've created is protected, or whether it's okay to use something someone else has created, you have to know how copyright law works.

In almost every country in the world, it works more or less the same way:

  1. Someone creates a work. 

  2. The work is protected by copyright law (sometimes and in some places).

  3. At some later time, protection of the work ends. (The work moves into the public domain.)

A work is usually protected automatically. Simply creating something gives you copyright to it (in most times and places) for some limited time.


The trick is determining when protection ends (or whether ther was any protection in the first place). You have to determine the copyright status in each country in which you want to use a work, and each country has its own history with copyright law. New law replaces old law, new treaties are signed, and new countries are created and old countries disappear. To figure out the copyright status of a work, you have to trace through the layers of law to determine what is relevant for a particular work in a particular country.

That pesky United States

For much of its history, the United States had its own unique system for protecting works, which included a number of requirements for protection. Some of those old rules lasted until March 1, 1989. The United States also used to exclude foreign works from protection, and when foreign works were given protection, many works failed to meet the strict requirements for protection in the U.S. copyright law. Because of this, in 1996, the United States began restoring copyright protection to foreign works under certain circumstances.


All of that means that sometimes determining the copyright status of a work in the United States is not easy. Other times, however, it can be straightforward. As in any other country, you have to dig through the laws to figure out what applies in a partcular case.

Data + the laws

To determine the copyright status of any work, two key elements are necessary: accurate data about the work and a system to sort through the complexity of the laws. The data—the year of first publication, the country of first publication, and so on—is vital. Copyright protection is typically a span of time of protection keyed off of a specific event. For example, protection might last for 75 years (the term of protection) from the death of the author (the event). What the term is and what event triggers it are determined by the type of work and the laws of the country in question. Laws also change over time, sometimes changing what the determining event is or the length of the term of protection. And so, in order to get an accurate matching of the data to the law, the data must be precise, and all of the relevant laws must be taken into consideration.  

How the Durationator helps

The Durationator is an expert system that knows the copyright laws of the world, including treaty information, specific requirements of each law, and the relationship between laws. You enter data about a work into the system, along with which countries you want a determination for. The system traces through the laws of the requested countries, applies them to the data provided about the work, and produces a report. That's it! Our reports include information about termination of transfer, library exceptions, permitted school-related uses, fair use, and other areas of copyright law that are connected to the term. Humans are still needed—to review the data being input and to run the report. But the laws themselves have been coded into our system, capturing the complexity that previously could be managed only through painstaking and expensive research by attorneys. Now, you can get a Durationator report and have your attorney review the results to advise you, dramatically reducing the time and cost compared to traditional copyright research.

Legal information, not legal advice

We provide legal research—that is, objective legal information related to the data we're given about a work. This is different from legal advice you'd get from an attorney. We do not weigh factors, make decisions, or review the law for a given situation. We do not give advice about how you should use the legal data we provide. Instead, you take our research to an attorney for evaluation and advice. If there is a conflict in the law, we present all sides to help your attorney make a decision. Our goal is to aid attorneys, not replace them. Attorneys are a key element in the process. If you do not have an attorney, we can provide a list of copyright attorneys that includes a bit of their background and pricing. We do not financially benefit from the list in any way. We've complied it as a courtesy for those needing a copyright attorney for the next step.

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