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Copyright Basics

About This Guide

This guide provides information about copyright -- including the rights of both creators and users of copyrighted material. However, it may not cover all scenarios involving copyright and fair use. If your question isn't answered here, or you would like further consultation, please contact Paige Morgan, Digital Publishing and Copyright Librarian, for further information. You can email Paige, or make an appointment to meet virtually.

None of the information in this guide, or in discussions with the Digital Publishing and Copyright Librarian, constitutes legal advice.


Four Things To Remember About Copyright Law

  1. It's incomplete. Many of our copyright laws were created and implemented before the rise of the Internet, and before various tools and technologies for sharing information and media became widely available. The laws haven't all caught up to our technologies, or to the cultural contexts in which we share copyrighted material.
  2. It changes. Laws change for various reasons -- to try to adapt to changes in technology or sociocultural contexts, and/or because individuals or groups successfully advocate for changes to them. Significant changes in copyright law have occurred in 1909, 1976, 1978, 1988, and 1998 -- just to name a few important years. What is legal or illegal may change -- and the ways that laws are enforced may also change.
  3. There may not be a definite answer to your copyright question.  While it would be convenient to get a definite answer to the question "can I use that?", in some cases, the only way to get that definite answer is if your use ends up in court. (Most of the time, that doesn't happen -- so in most cases, there's not a definite answer.) Even when you don't have a definite answer, there are specific steps that you can take to make good choices and prepare for different possibilities.
  4. Being cautious about using copyrighted material has its own risks. When people think about using copyrighted material, they often try to think of the safest way to proceed, with the least risk of getting sued. That approach is understandable -- but it can backfire if it normalizes the idea that certain uses of copyrighted material are not legal. Knowing your rights and using them -- whether as a creator or user of copyrighted material -- helps to maintain them for everyone.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a collection of rights granted to authors and creators for a limited  amount of time. 

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the creators of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The Copyright Act (17 USC § 102)  gives the creator or owner of copyright certain exclusive rights:

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work 
  • to prepare derivative works (a derivative work is a creation that is based on or includes the original material)
  • to make and distribute copies of the copyrighted work 
  • to perform or display the copyrighted work in public 

Many types of works are copyrightable -- including literary, musical, graphic, and architectural works. However, a "work" cannot be just an idea to qualify for copyright protection. It must "fixed" to give it some permanency. The specific wording in the law is "fixed in any tangible medium of expression" -- and this could mean that it is written or typed, photographed, recorded as audio or video, or created, if your idea is for a physical object. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or fixation. In most jurisdictions, copyright arises upon expression or fixation. This means that as soon as you have created your idea in a tangible form, you hold the copyright. You hold the copyright whether or not you choose to formally register it with the US Copyright Office (and more information on registering is available elsewhere in this guide).

The exclusive rights of the copyright owner are balanced for public interest purposes with limitations and exceptions.  Copyright owners have the exclusive statutory right to exercise control over copying and other exploitation of their works for a specific period of time.  However, during the publication process, copyright owners often license or permanently transfer or assign their exclusive rights to others. Once the copyright expires the work enters the public domain. Uses of a work which fall under the limitations and exceptions to copyright, such as fair use, do not require permission from the copyright owner. All other uses require permission.

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