What is Copyright?
Copyright is a legal protection that grants rights to creators of original works. Specifically, the law intends 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.” Works must be an original work of authorship, be creative (minimally), and “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression such as, in print or in an audio recording to warrant protection. Rights granted to creators include the right of reproduction, distribution, derivative works, public performance and display, and the right to license any or all of these rights to another individual or entity. In academe, we frequently make use of copyrighted works in the course of our business, and as such, need to be aware of the limits of using works copyrighted by others.
Read the Copyright Law of the United States and find information about the law including what types of works are, and are not, covered by copyright law:
- Copyright Law of the United States (United States Code, Title 17)
- United States Copyright Office
- Copyright Crash Course (University of Texas Libraries)
- Copyright legislation (United States Copyright Office)
Who owns copyright and for how long?
The creator is the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint copyright holders, with equal rights. With some exceptions (especially in academe), work created as a part of a person’s employment is a “work made for hire” and copyright belongs to the employer. Copyright can be transferred in whole or in part
Copyright exists from the moment of creation, as soon as a work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression; registration is not required. For individually created works, copyright lasts the life of the author plus 70 years. For jointly created works, copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the last living creator. For works made for hire or anonymous works, copyright lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. This means that for that duration of time after the creation of a work, anyone who wants to use the material in any way, (except for special and limited provisions made in Section 107 which covers Fair Use, see below) needs to receive permission from the copyright holder to remain in compliance with copyright law.
These tools can help to determine whether a work is protected under copyright law:
- Digital Copyright Slider (American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy)
- Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University)
What is fair use?
Fair use is a provision laid out in Section 107 of the Copyright Law that allows limited use of copyright-protected works without permission. Fair use generally covers uses such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and limited use in teaching and scholarship. Fair use is assessed using four factors:
- the purpose and character of the use
- the nature of the work
- the amount of the work used in relation to the whole
- the effect of the use on the potential market of the work
For help with determining a fair use assessment , here are a guide, a checklist, and more information:
- Copyright & Fair Use (Stanford University)
- Fair Use Checklist (Columbia University)
- Fair Use Evaluator (American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy)
Using copyrighted works
This isn’t to suggest that copyrighted works can’t be used. To do so would cause the “Progress of Science and useful Arts” to cease. But it is meant to protect the work of copyright holders, “by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Therefore, those who want to use copyrighted works need to seek permission. For explanations of the limits of the law, and how to work within its confines, especially as it pertains to academe, see:
- Can I Use Someone Else’s Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine? (US Copyright Office)
- Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians (US Copyright Office)
- Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002 (see pg. 116 STAT. 1910) – Law regarding digital transmission of copyrighted materials
- TEACH Act Information (University of North Carolina)
- TEACH Act Toolkit (North Carolina State University)
- TEACH Act Checklist (North Carolina State University)
- The TEACH Act and some FAQs (American Library Association)
- Sample written request for permission (University of Texas Libraries)
For more Wake Forest University copyright information