What is Copyright?
Copyright is a legal protection that grants intellectual property 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.” Copyright grants creators rights to:
- Make copies of the work
- Share the work
- Make derivatives of the work (e.g., translations, adaptations, sequels)
- Perform or display the work publicly
Creators can also license or transfer some or all of those rights to others. Copyright applies to the following types of works:
- literary works
- visual works
- audiovisual works
- musical works, including accompanying words
- dramatic works, including accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- sound recordings
- architectural works
In academe, we are constantly creating our own copyrighted works and frequently make use of others’ copyrighted works in our research and instruction, so we need to be aware of how to manage our own copyrights and correctly use others’ copyrighted works.
For more in-depth details:
- Copyright Law of the United States (United States Code, Title 17)
- Copyright Crash Course (University of Texas Libraries)
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. As noted above, copyright can be transferred in whole or in part.
Copyright exists from the moment of creation, as soon as a work that is original and creative (low threshold) is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Essentially that means that the work is not a copy of something else, includes more creative spark than listing in alphabetical order or similar obvious presentation, and is an idea that has made it out of the creator’s mind into a tangible form. Creators do not have to register copyright to have ownership – copyright just happens! There are, of course, good reasons to register in certain situations. Creators also do not have to publish or publicly share their work or include notice – (c) name date – to secure copyright; again, copyright just happens.
Copyright lasts for a long time:
- 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 the duration of copyright, anyone who wants to use the work in any way must either have permission from the copyright owner or be exercising fair use.
This chart can help to determine whether a work is still under copyright:
- Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University Library)
What is fair use?
Fair use is a right granted 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, satire and parody, news reporting, and limited use in teaching and scholarship. Fair use is assessed along four factors:
- Purpose and character of the use
- Nature of the original work
- Amount of the work used in relation to the whole
- Impact of the use on the potential market of the work
Each instance of a proposed use must be evaluated using the four factors above to determine if, on balance, the use is fair or not. Simply because a proposed use is broadly educational does not mean it is a fair use! Additionally, a work may be used in one situation that is a fair use, but in another situation where permission is necessary. Fair use can be tricky to determine and therefore makes people nervous, but it is a powerful right that can and should be exercised.
For help with determining fair use, here is a checklist you can work through to aid your assessment:
Questions? Ask us!
- Molly Keener, Director of Digital Initiatives & Scholarly Communication, 336-758-5829
See also: Copyright Policy of Wake Forest University.
Many thanks to colleagues at the University of Texas Libraries, Cornell University Library, the University of Minnesota Libraries, and Columbia University Libraries for first providing information on their respective websites that has been reused or linked to on this site.