Welcome to the copyright overview page! Click on the tabs in the box below to find out more about what copyright is and how it works. You can find more information about general copyright issues by clicking on the links in the box that's below on the right.
Copyright is a legal privilege that is granted to creators of original works, in Title 17 of the U.S. Code.
The law grants creators exclusive rights of:
See the next tab, "What kinds of works can be copyrighted?", for more on specific materials that can be copyrighted.
Copyright is automatic from the moment of creation, and does not require registration. However, such registration can be advantageous if one is looking to gain commercial advantage from copyrighted works, or if one wants to extend copyright past an expiry date. (See the tab "How long does copyright last?", or this helpful site from Cornell, for more on copyright expiration dates.)
Works of authorship that are "fixed in any tangible medium of expression" (U.S. Copyright Code) can be copyrighted.
This can include many kinds of works: literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, sculptural, audiovisual and architectural.
The caveats are that the work must be original, with at least a modicum of creativity. (The standard whether something has a "modicum of creativity" would be determined by a court, if and when a copyright infringement claim is filed.)
Also, the work must be fixed, in a stable and reproducible form (paper, book, clay, art work, sculptural, film, computer drive).
Per the copyright code, copyright protection does not apply to any "idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, principle or discovery." (Some of these categories could involve patent protection, but that is a very different concept from copyright, and well beyond the scope of this guide.)
Again, if a work is not fixed/tangible, it cannot be copyrighted, and there must be a modicum of creativity. Thus, facts are not copyrightable; "Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States" is not a copyrightable statement. In a similar vein, data that are gathered generally are not copyrightable (because the data are considered "facts"), although the commentary and conclusions surrounding a data set certainly would be.
Work that are created by the U.S. government for the public are in the public domain, and as such are not subject to copyright. They can therefore be used and reused without permission. Similarly, works for which copyright has expired have passed into the public domain, and as such can be duplicated, performed, etc., without permission. See the tab labeled "How long does copyright last?" or this Cornell page for more on copyright expiry.
Copyright ownership is granted to authors or creators of works (again, literary, musical, artistic, etc.) from the moment of creation. In many cases, it's that simple! But of course there are a few additional points that are worth knowing...
How long does a copyright last? In short, it's complicated!
There are many scenarios, depending on such things as when and whether the material was published, and whether a copyright was registered. One of the most commonly cited dates is 1924; materials published prior to this date are in the public domain due to copyright expiry. They can thus be used (duplicated, performed, etc.) without permission. However, this doesn't necessarily apply to unpublished materials; for these, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
If you're wondering whether copyright has expired for a particular item, use this helpful chart from Cornell University to sort it out. Note that different scenarios apply for sound recordings and architectural works.
Fair use is a right inscribed in Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code. It stipulates that copyrighted materials can be used in ways that are prescribed by law. There are four factors to the fair use doctrine, and courts weigh all of the factors as a whole when determining whether a particular usage is judged to be fair. For more specifics on fair use, see this guide's fair use page.
In addition to fair use, there are two basic exceptions that are of interest to teaching faculty.
It is important that either of these exceptions can be superseded if the user has signed a license that prohibits the usages outlined in Section 110 or the TEACH Act. Such licenses would typically include streaming services such as Amazon or Netflix.
For more on each of these exceptions, visit the "Classroom & Campus Usage" page of this guide.
While copyright is applied automatically to works and is a right inscribed in law for creators, licensing is the result of a deliberate agreement between two (or more) parties concerning how a work may be used, displayed, performed, duplicated, etc.
The thing to remember is: If a license or contract agreement has been signed, it can and often does supersede the rights that are granted by law to the copyright owner. For example, if you, a faculty member, write a scholarly article, you own the copyright. But if you sign a contract that gives a publisher exclusive rights to that article, you no longer own the copyright and can thus no longer use, copy or display your own work without permission from that publisher. (Note: This is not a random scenario; it happens all the time!)
So just remember: licenses and contracts supersede original copyright.
The following is a list of questions to ask about use (duplication, performance, display, etc.) of a work; it's adapted from a list created by Peggy Hoon, J.D., of the Association of Research Libraries, in the document "Using Copyrighted Works in Your Teaching"*:
*This work is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 license. ©2007 by Peggy Hoon.
Generally, you need to figure out who holds the copyright, get in touch with those person(s) and/or part(ies), and ask!
This is easier with some providers than others. Most large media companies and publishers have a mechanism for this; do a web search for the media company along with the words "copyright permission." Often, there will be specific instructions for how to contact the company and ask for permission.
You may need to write a letter and wait for permission. More information on how to do that, along with some letter templates, is available at this very helpful website from Columbia University. The page includes a detailed summary of the process, along with sample letters for textual and video requests.