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What is copyright?
Copyright is a set of rights, grounded in the U.S Constitution, which are granted to authors, composers, artists, and other creators to control the use of their works. Designed "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" (U.S. Constitution Article I., Section 8, Clause 8), copyright law prohibits performing, displaying, reproducing, creating derivative works of, and distributing copies of works without authorization from the copyright holder. Adhering to copyright laws is much broader than avoiding plagiarism; simply providing attribution to the creator of a work is insufficient to avoid copyright violation.
What types of materials are covered by copyright?
All fixed, original, creative works are covered by copyright, regardless of whether they are published or copyright registered, including but not limited to:
What types of materials are not protected by copyright?
Facts, ideas, and methods are not protected by copyright, but an original expression of these may be covered. In order to be copyright protected, ideas must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, must be original, and must exhibit some level of creativity on the part of the author. Some examples of works that are not copyright protected include:
How do I determine whether a particular work is copyrighted?
Determining whether or not a particular work is protected by copyright can be complicated due to changes in copyright law over time.
Copyright protections do eventually expire at which point a work enters the public domain and may be freely used without obtaining permission. As of 2021, all works published in the U.S. prior to 1926 are in the public domain. For materials not yet in the public domain, the duration of copyright protections differs depending on the laws in place when the work was originally published. For materials published after 1978, the duration of copyright is the life of the author + 70 years, or, in the case of an unknown author or corporate authorship, either 120 years from the date of creation or 100 years from the date of publication - whichever is shorter. Check out Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart for information on works published between 1926 and 1978.
In addition to the expiration of protections, some works have entered the public domain due to failure to comply with certain formalities required at the time of their publication (e.g., no © notice before 1989).
What rights are protected by copyright and how do they impact the use of copyrighted materials in my class?
Copyright holders have the right to control the following uses of a work:
You should consider copyright limitations any time you make use of materials created by someone else. Some examples of such instances that are common in the classroom include:
What does it mean for a work to be in the public domain and how may I use public domain works in teaching?
Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright. (See "How do I determine whether a particular work is copyrighted?" in the Fundamentals section for additional information on how works enter the public domain.) These works are considered public property and can be used by anyone without obtaining permission. However, although these works are free to use, you must still provide attribution to the original creator for public domain works and their derivatives.
What is fair use? Is all educational use fair use?
The doctrine of "fair use" is a legal exemption to copyright protections that allows some uses of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes without securing permissions from or paying royalties to the copyright holder.
It's a common misconception that any educational use qualifies as fair use. Fair use is complex, and there is no simple formula for determining whether a use qualifies. In order to determine whether your use of a copyrighted work qualifies, you will need to conduct a fair use analysis focusing on these four factors:
1. The purpose of the use (e.g. nonprofit educational vs. commercial)
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount of material used (the greater the percentage of the work used, the less likely it is that a fair use defense will apply)
4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work
Check the "Fair Use" page of this guide for more help with determining whether your use of a work constitutes a fair use.
What are Open Educational Resources (OER)?
Open Educational Resources are educational materials (including textbooks, Canvas modules/courses, tutorials, videos, assignments, and more) that are free for anyone to access and that have few copyright restrictions. These resources are either in the public domain or have permissive licenses (for example, Creative Commons licenses) which allow them to be accessed, modified, and distributed for no cost. More information about OER and how to implement OER in your classroom can be found in our OER Guide.
What is a Creative Commons license?
Creative Commons licenses are a standardized means of granting the public permission to use copyrighted works for free under specific conditions. They are most often used for works shared online. As the user of a work, these licenses allow you to use copyrighted works for free as long as you adhere to the conditions of the license. As a copyright holder, these licenses allow you to increase access to your work.
Six types of Creative Commons licenses are available, offering varying levels of permissions. As a copyright holder, you can choose a license that allows or disallows the use of your work for commercial purposes and/or the creation of derivatives or adaptations of your work.
How do I identify the owner of a copyrighted work?
By default, copyright ownership is initially granted to the person who created a work. A notable exception is "works for hire" - cases where the work was created by an employee within the scope of their employment (or by a freelancer, depending on the terms of their contract) and ownership thus belongs to the employer. However, copyright ownership can be (and often is) transferred to another person or organization - most commonly, the publisher. This is very often the case with academic journal articles, books, and images.
Although it is common for publishers to request copyright transfer, this is not a requirement of publication. Authors may license the right to publish their works on a temporary or non-exclusive basis in order to retain greater control over their use and distribution.
In instances where copyright ownership has been transferred, permission from the author is not sufficient to use the work. You will need to identify the copyright holder and seek their permission.
One way to quickly identify the owner of a work is to look for a copyright notice. With books, these are usually found on the back of the title page. For journals, they may be included in the front of the journal near the table of contents or at the bottom of an article. Keep in mind, though, that the absence of a copyright statement does not indicate that a work is not protected by copyright. These notices are not required for works published since 1978.
In the absence of a copyright statement, the following resources may help you identify the work's owner:
1. The publisher's website
4. The WATCH (Writers, Artists, and their Copyright Holders) database
5. Other licensing agencies (A list of collective licensing agencies compiled by the University System of Georgia can be found here.)
Note that, even when ownership of a work has been transferred, authorship should still be attributed to the original creator.
How do I obtain permission from rights holders to use a copyrighted work?
Before seeking permission to use a copyrighted work, assess whether your intended use qualifies as fair use. If so, it isn't necessary to seek permission. You need the permission of the copyright holder only if your intended use exceeds fair use and other copyright exceptions.
Gaining permission to use a copyrighted work can be a lengthy process, so you should begin well in advance of the beginning of the semester in which you hope to use the work.
The first step in obtaining permission to use a work is to confirm the owner of the work. Be sure that you are requesting permission from the entity legally able to grant it. If multiple co-authors share ownership of the work, be sure to obtain permission from all copyright holders.
When you reach out to a copyright holder, be sure to include sufficient details about the work and your intended usage, including any of the following, if applicable:
Rather than approaching the copyright holder directly, you may consider using a licensing agency such as Copyright Clearance Center. These agencies work with several publishers to make the process of obtaining licenses to use copyrighted works and paying any associated royalty fees simpler and more efficient. Although licensing agencies often make seeking permission easier, they usually charge fees for their services in addition to to any royalties required by the owner of the work.
In either case, you should retain copies of all correspondence and forms related to your request. These will be needed in the event that your usage is challenged. Keeping a detailed record will also expedite this process should you ever need to repeat it.