The term of “published work” is often used in copyright law. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, under Title 17 of U.S. Code §101, both published and unpublished works are copyright-protectable. Published works refers to works that have “copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lodging” (Title 17 of U.S. Code §101).
Even though the Copyright Act protects both published and unpublished works, the protection rules differ. For example, for anonymous works, pseudonymous works, and works made for hire, published works has copyright protections for 95 years from the year of the first publication, or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever is shorter. For unpublished works, the copyright protection would be for 120 years from the year of its creation (17 USC §302(c)).
For works created before 1978, only published works can be copyright-protected.
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]