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Copyright and Fair Use: In the Classroom and Online: Copyright

A guide to inform faculty about copyright and fair use.

Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright is: "a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works."

The three requirements for copyright:

  1. original work;
  2. be work of authorship;
  3. exist in a fixed, tangible medium

Why is it important? 

  • It gives authors the right to control the use of their works.
  • It encourages the dissemination of knowledge.
  • It protects authors, inventors, and creators' rights to reproduce and market their works within a specific time frame.

What does copyright protect?

Under 17 USCS Section 102 the following is protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound Recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

What cannot be copyrighted?

Certain types of works are not eligible for copyright protection. These include:

  • Ideas, theories, concepts
  • Procedures, methods, processes
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans, familiar symbols or designs, variations of type styles, lists of ingredients 
  • Facts
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship
  • Works of the U.S. government

These works are in the public domain, meaning they are freely available for use without copyright restrictions. More about public domain to the right. 

Who owns the copyright?

  • The author
  • Those deriving rights through or from the author
    • This can include publishers, record labels, descendants of the author, etc.
  • If the work is done as a work for hire, the employer of the author is the copyright holder
  • If the work has more than one author, two or more authors can own copyright

-Derived from the Copyright Clearance Center's 2006 Copyright Education Series Foundations Workbook

How long does copyright last?

  • The current term is the lif of the author plus 70 years.
  • If it is a corporate author the term is 95  years from the date of the first publication or 120 years from the date of creation (whichever comes first).
  • For more information about copyright terms, please see the chart by the Cornell Copyright Information Center and the American Library Association's Digital copyright slider.

Digital Copyright Slider 

What happens when copyright expires?

When the term of copyright expires (or an individual forfeits their copyrights using a CC0 license or something similar, see the Creative Commons tab for more information), a work is said to enter into the public domain. 

More about Public Domain, what it is and information associated with it is found in the opposite column on this page. 

Public Doman

What is Public Domain?

The public domain includes all of the creative works not covered by copyright. It also includes most works created by the United States government. 

Works in the public domain are free for the public to use. These works can be copied, modified or used in any way without asking permission. 

How does a work enter the Public Domain?

A work will enter the public domain in one of these ways:

  • When copyright expires
  • When the work was created before 1923
  • When works have been assigned to the public domain by their creator

What works have expired into the public domain?

Congress has passed a series of laws extending the term of copyright. Currently, the default term is life of the author plus 70 years. That means that most of the copyrighted works created from the late 1970s to the present may not become public domain during your lifetime.

In general, works published after 1977 will not fall into the public domain until 70 years after the death of author, or, for corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. 

So what works have expired?

• All works published in the United States before 1923
• All works published with a copyright notice from 1923 - 1963 without copyright renewal
• All works published without a copyright notice from 1923 - 1977
• All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 - March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years

Source from Cornell University, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States."