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Whether you are a faculty member or a student, it's good to know about the complex copyright laws in the United States to avoid plagiarism or using something illegally in the classroom.

What is Copyright

Copyright gives the creator of an original work complete control over its use and distribution. 

In a quick summary, the Copyright Act grants five rights to a copyright owner:

  1. The right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
  2. The right to prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  3. The right to distribute copies of the work to the public.
  4. The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  5. The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.

Copyright is the legal protection that grants to the owner the right to control public display, reproduction, adaptation, and distribution of his or her creative product.

Anything in a fixed medium is copyrighted. Even if the copyright symbol is not on the material, it is assumed that it is protected.

Copyright does not protect ideas, but the products of those ideas. Copyright laws are being enforced more now than ever before, so a working knowledge of copyright laws is useful in the classroom and outside.

Understanding Copyright

Additional Copyright Resources

Public Domain

The term "public domain" encompasses materials for which:

  • The copyright has expired;
  • The copyright owner has intentionally and explicitly"dedicated" it to the public domain;
  • The copyright owner did not follow copyright renewal rules; or
  • Copyright law does not protect (such as works created by U.S. Government employees during the course of their employment, and works that cannot by copyrighted (such as ideas, common knowledge, data points etc.))

Public domain is different than "publicly accessible" or "free online." 

Fair Use Guidelines

Principles of fair use allow individuals to make single copies of copyrighted works for their own research and study or to use copyrighted material in the classroom for presentations or assignments. For example, some faculty may place copies of an article on library reserve for students to read. 

These principles also allow faculty to make multiple copies of copyrighted material for use in classroom instruction. For example, instructors may copy a rubric to help students evaluate each other's work.

However, if that same material were placed on a website, used in a newsletter, or mounted to social media, permission from the copyright holder would be required. Without permission, such actions are infringements and potentially subject to civil and criminal charges.

Purpose and character of the use

  • Has the work simply been copied? If so, it may not be fair use.
  • Has the work been transformed in some way? If it is altered significantly, used for another purpose, or appeals to a different audience, the likelier it is fair use.
  • Is the work being used for nonprofit or educational purposes? If so, it is more likely to be fair use. However, there are additional considerations that educators must make when determining whether an educational use is fair.

Nature of copyrighted work

  • Is the work published or unpublished? Unpublished works are less likely to be considered fair use.
  • Is it out of print? If so, it is more likely to be fair use.
  • Is the work factual or artistic? The more a work tends toward artistic expression, the less likely it will be fair use.

Amount and substantiality of portion used

  • If the amount used is over 10% of the entire work, the use is more likely to be unfair.
  • Will it adversely affect the author's economic gain? Using the "heart" or "essence" of a work is less likely fair use.

Effect of the use on the potential market for the copyrighted work

  • The more the new work differs from the original, the less likely it is an infringement.
  • Does the work appeal to the same audience as the original? If so, it is more likely infringement. 
  • Does the new work contain anything original? If it does, it is more likely fair use.

Finding a Copyright Owner

These sites outline tools and techniques for identifying and contacting copyright owners.

  • U.S. Copyright Office - Search Copyright Records
    Search records of registered books, music, art, periodicals, and other works, and documents recorded by the U.S. Copyright Office since January 1, 1978. Includes copyright ownership documents.
  • How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work
    Circular 22 in PDF format from the United States Copyright Office on how to investigate the copyright status of a work.
  • Finding the Owner - Columbia Copyright Advisory Office
    From the Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office, this guide provides the basics on locating and contacting authors, publishers, and other copyright owners.
  • Locating U.S. Copyright Holders
    From the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, this step-by-step guide for researchers outlines the process of identifying and locating copyright owners.
  • Getting Permission
    From the University of Texas System, this is a detailed guide to searching for copyright owners and asking permission to use copyrighted works. This site includes information on textual works, as well as art, music, plays, movies, and foreign works. Also discusses unidentifiable or unresponsive owners.

Fair Use Video

A short film by Eric Faden, using short disney clips that fall under the category of fair use (remember, they can use short amounts of the film without express permission because of fair use).

Copyright Tools