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Copyright and Fair Use: Copyright Basics

Resources to help with questions of copyright and fair use in an academic setting.

What can be copyrighted?

There are two fundamental criteria for copyright protection:

  • Originality
  • Fixation in tangible form (can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated)

Types of works protected by copyright include:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What is not protected by copyright?

  • facts or ideas
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans
  • procedures, methods, systems or processes
  • works of the United States government
  • works that have passed into the public domain

What is copyright?

  • Copyright is a federal law. It is Title 17 of the United States Code
  • It protects the right of authors to control the use of their original work for a limited period of time
  • It gives copyright holders a set of exclusive rights to 
    • reproduce the work, in whole or in part
    • distribute copies of the work
    • publicly perform the work
    • publicly display the work, and 
    • prepare derivative works based on the original, such as translations or adaptations

These rights are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as "fair use," which allow limited uses of works without the permission of the copyright holder. 

Do I need permission to use the work?

This is the big question, and simply claiming educational use doesn't always cut it, but not all copyrighted work requires permission. Ask yourself these 3 questions:

Question One: Some works aren't protected, like those listed in the box to the left; but note, the presence or absence of a copyright notice no longer carries the significance it once did because the law no longer requires a notice. Older works published without a notice may be in the public domain, but for works created after March 1, 1989, absence of a notice means virtually nothing. 

Question Two: If the work is protected, do you wish to exercise one of the owner's exclusive rights? If you want to use the copyrighted work for any of these purposes, you will be exercising the owner's exclusive rights:

  • Reproduce. Make a copy.
  • Create a derivative work. Use a work as the basis for a new work. 
  • Distribute a work. Electronically distribute or publish copies.
  • Publicly perform a work. Publicly perform music, prose, poetry, a drama, or play a video or audiotape or CD.
  • Publicly display a work. Publicly display the work itself or an image of the work on a computer screen or otherwise. 

Question Three: If you wish to exercise an exclusive right, is your use considered fair use


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Jenny Mills