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Copyright Basics

Copyright law intersects with what we do as educators in many ways. Questions can arise when using copyright materials in the classroom, online or in research.

What is Copyright?

Copyright (Title 17 of the United States Code) is a federal law which provides exclusive rights for original authors/creators to control the use of their work for a limited period of time.

Although most people would say that the purpose of copyright is to protect copyright holders/authors rights, the purpose of copyright is stated in the act itself.

The Congress shall have Power 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. 
(United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8

The law was intended to serve a dual purpose, to provide rights to authors in order to protect their work but also to promote creativity and learning by allowing for others to be inspired to create more original work.

The protection is actually a means of promoting the production of culture by protecting creative expression while at the same time not allowing any one person to have a monopoly on the future creation of creative expression.


What exclusive rights do copyright holder have?

The six exclusive rights contained in the law are as follows:

The right to...

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Distribute the work.
  • Create derivative works
  • Publicly perform the work.
  • Publicly display the work.
  • Publicly perform sound recordings by means of a digital audio transmission.

Exclusive rights are divisible and can be inherited, given or contracted away, which means someone can own the copyright without physically owning the tangible work.

What is protected by copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “copyright protects ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” Which means the work must be written or recorded in some form to be protected. There are eight categories of works:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Copyright DOES NOT protect:

  • Works not fixed in a tangible form
  • Ideas, facts or data
  • Titles, names or slogans
  • Works of the U.S. Government
  • Works in the Public Domain

What is the Public Domain?

The Public Domain refers to works that were created in certain time periods that are no longer protected by copyright. The following works are in the Public Domain:

  • Works published prior to 1923
  • Works published between 1923 and 1963 without a copyright notice
  • Works published between 1923 and 1963 with a copyright notice but without the copyright being renewed


Determining if the work is protected by copyright

  • Does the work fall into one of the categories listed above for protected works?
  • Is it still protected by copyright or is it in the public domain?

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time.

This differs if the work was created by a corporate author which uses a different formula.

For more information regarding the length of a copyright, please see the copyright duration chart.

The website www.copyright.gov is a source to check the copyright status of works. Renewed works will be registered here but keep in mind not all renewal records are available electronically.

Yes, the work I want to use is protected by copyright.

If a work is covered by copyright you still may be able to use the work by evaluating your use and taking into account the fair use exception. This is a section of the law which provides for limited use of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes without obtaining permission from the work’s owner for the purpose of criticism, comment, news, reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. It is a set of broad guidelines rather than explicit rules

Learn more about Fair Use. (LINK)

No, the work is not protected.

If the work is NOT covered by copyright or has applied an alternative license applied, as a Creative Commons license, than you may use it but would still want to properly cite the work.

It's unclear.

Many works fall into the unknown category or are an "orphaned work" - A work in which copyright exists, but where the copyright owner is either unknown or cannot be located. Fair use still applied to these works but any use of the material outside the bounds of fair use is a bit more complicated. Seek copyright guidance.



This web site presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.

Measuring Research Impact


Copyright Resources


Library Contact

Julia Rodriguez
Scholarly Communications Librarian


Related Guides:

Copyright Resource for Faculty


Created by Name / Updated on March 13, 2018 by Name

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