- Copyright Basics - from the U.S. Copyright Office
What is copyright?
Copyright is a legal concept enacted by most governments which gives the author or creator of an original work rights over how that work is reproduced.
In the United States, U.S. 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 Copyright may cover both published and unpublished works.
As a general rule the guidelines and information within this website refer to items covered by U.S. law. Items published in foreign countries may be held under different rules.
What is fair use?
Fair Use is a doctrine within U.S. copyright law that allows for some limited use of of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. The circumstances under which fair use may apply include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Four tests are involved: purpose and character of use, nature of copyrighted work, amount and substantiality of portion used, effect of use on potential market for copyrighted work.
For more information about how to apply fair use see Obtaining Permission.
For guidance on when and how to apply fair use, go to the Fair Use Checklist - http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/fair-use/fair-use-checklist/.
How long does copyright last?
The term of U.S. copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.
To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.
Cornell University has created an easy to read guide to Copyright Term and the Public Domain In the United States.
These copyright terms apply only to material published in the United States. Items published in other countries are likely to have different terms.
What is the public domain?
The public domain is made up of of works that are ineligible for copyright protection or have expired copyrights. No permissions are needed to copy or use public domain works.
- Some works, such as government documents, statistical techniques and judicial opinions are simply not eligible for copyright and so are always within the public domain.
- Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain.
- Works published between 1923 and March 1989 are usually under copyright , but registrations and renewals were required. This means that some of these works may have entered the public domain.
- All works created (published and unpublished) in the United States after 1989 are under copyright and require permissions for use unless a specific non-assertion of copyright was made.
For a helpful resource on which materials are under copyright and which are in the public domain please consult Cornell University's Copyright Term and the Public Domain webpage.
What does copyright protect (or not)?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.
How is copyright different from patents and trademarks?
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.
Who owns copyright?
Copyright is usually owned, at least initially, by the creator of a work and his or her heirs. The creator may transfer some or all of their rights to another person or entity, such as a publisher. This transfer of rights may be unconditional (an assignment) or for a limited period of time or set of conditions (licensed).
Works created by an employee as part of their job, usually called 'works for hire', may be owned by the employer. Depending on contractual arrangements works created under commision by an independent contractor may belong to the commisioning person or organization.
Works created by two or more creators may belong to them jointly.
What is the TEACH Act?
The TEACH Act provides a “safe harbor” against infringement for certain online educational transmission and exempts uses “in the course of face-to-face teaching activities…in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction." The TEACH Act includes a series of requirements for educational use including
- materials used cannot have been produced or marketed primarily for use in distance education
- portions of dramatic works (e.g., plays and films) must be “reasonable and limited”
- access to content must, “to the extent technologically feasible,” be limited to students enrolled in the course
- technological protection measures (i.e., digital rights management (DRM)) should be used so that works displayed are only accessible during the class session and cannot be redistributed by students to others
- any DRM already used by rightsholders shouldn’t be tampered with.
There can be civil or criminal penalties for faculty, students or relevant staff. There also can be injunctions issued (i.e., court orders to stop doing an activity, like posting infringing materials.) In general, if someone is found guilty of infringing a copyright, the court can award statutory damages between $750 and $30,000 for each infringement of each work. If the court finds an infringement was willful, the court may increase the damages for each infringement to up to $150,000. If a court finds that an infringer was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted a copyright infringement, the court may reduce the damages to as low as $200 per infringement. Importantly, a court can refuse to award statutory damages at all when library personnel are making photocopies as part of their employment, and believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, that the copying was a fair use. See 17 USC 504(c)(2)(i).