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Research Assistance: Copyright

Copyright Fundamentals

Copyright Basics

If you’re thinking about using copyrighted material, a basic understanding of the law is essential! Respecting the copyright owner and the owner’s trust in the users of their work will help you better understand what their and your rights are. Keep in mind both the perspective of the owner and user of the material. Ask yourself, “If I was the copyright owner, how would I want others to treat my work?”

Just because you own a copy of a book, CD, poster, painting or movie doesn’t mean you now have the right to make copies of that material. You have only purchased the right to own your personal copy. Making a copy to sell, for a friend, or for various other purposes may not be within your rights.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is protection provided by law (17, U.S. Code §102) to the authors/creators of “original works of authorship,” expressed in any tangible medium of expression. This protection is available for original works from the moment they are created in a tangible medium, and it applies whether they are published, unpublished, or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright protection is available for an author/creator if three requirements are met:

  1. Fixation—the work exists in a medium from which the author’s expression can be read, seen, or heard, either directly or by the aid of a machine
  2. Originality—the work owes its origin and independent creation to an author
  3. Minimal creativity—the work is the product of at least a minimal level of creativity

Rights of the Copyright Owner

Section 106 of the U.S. copyright law gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • to reproduce the work
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • to distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • to perform the work publicly
  • to display the copyrighted work publicly
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission.
  • in the case of a “work of visual art” the author has certain rights of attribution and integrity

The rights of the copyright owner are, in some instances, limited as several sections of the U.S. Copyright Law have established limitations on these rights. However, unless one or more of the limitations (exemptions) apply, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted works in any of the listed ways.

The copyright owner is the person or entity who owns the exclusive rights mentioned above. The copyright owner could be the author, the publisher, or another person or entity having legal ownership of one or more of the exclusive rights described above.

Remember, it is both dishonest and illegal for a person to violate any rights of the copyright owner.

Unprotected Materials

Copyright protection does not extend to the following; therefore, copyright permission is not required for you to use them:

  • Works for which the copyright has expired.
  • Works federal government employees produced within the scope of their employment.
  • Works clearly and explicitly donated to the public domain.
  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or spontaneous speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded).
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship (for example, standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources).

Copyright Duration (Public Domain)

When copyright ownership/protection expires, the work enters the public domain meaning anyone can freely use the work without seeking permission or paying a fee. Both U.S. and international copyright laws governing the length of copyright protection have been revised several times, thus it is often difficult to accurately determine if a work has entered the public domain. See the following chartCopyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States for determining if a work has entered the public domain. Also you can go to the tab Essential Tools to see if a work is still copyrighted or in the public domain. 

Copyright Facts

FACT #1 Copyright laws apply to written works including:

  • literature and software
  • music and lyrics
  • screenplays, pantomine and choreography
  • pictures, graphics (including maps) and sculpture
  • motion picture and audio/visual productions (including podcasts)
  • sound recordings
  • architecture

FACT #2 If a work lacks a © symbol or copyright notice, it does not mean you can use it freely. Copyright applies to a work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible form. A person does not have to be registered with the US Copyright Office for infringement action to be taken.

FACT #3 Acknowledging the source of a copyrighted material is not a substitute for obtaining permission.

FACT #4 Only the copyright owner has the exclusive rights to reproduce or display publicly their work. Only they can give permission for others to do the same.

FACT #5 There are cases where it is permitted to “borrow” materials without obtaining the copyright holder’s permission. This is called fair use.

What is Fair Use?

  1. Four Fair Use Factors: Section 107

    1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial natre or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

    2. The nature of the copyrighted work.

    3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relationship to the work as a whole.

    4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Classroom Recommendations

Limit course material to a:

  • Single chapter from a book
  • Single article from a journal issue
  • Chart, graph, or illustration from a single source

Be sure to:

  • Include the copyright notice on the original
  • Cite the source of the material
  • Obtain permission

Remember that:

  • Copies should not replace or substitute for anthologies, compilations or collective works
  • No copies should be provided from consumable works
  • Copies shall not substitute for the purchase of books or periodicals
  • Only the actual cost of photocopying/reproduction can be collected