Copyright – FAQ

Copyright and fair use: Frequently asked questions

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the law of the United States (Title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.
The owner of copyright for an “original work of authorship” has exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To make copies – in whole or in part – of the work
  • To create new works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies of the work, either freely or for sale
  • To perform the work publicly
  • To display the work publicly

Does a work have to have a copyright notice to be protected?

No. Works published after March 1, 1989 are not required to bear the copyright notice (“Copyright”, “©”, or “Copr.” + year of publication (or creation) + copyright owner’s name) to be protected. However, use of the notice is important because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. Furthermore, in the event that a work is infringed, if a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies, additional weight is given to the copyright owner’s case.

Why do I need to get permission to use copyrighted materials?

If you want to use any of the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders in their work (e.g. to make copies, distribute it, etc.), and your use is not otherwise exempt (e.g. qualifies as fair use), you need to ask permission.

When do I need permission?

You do not need to seek permission to use works that are in the public domain. Works in the public domain include those:

  • For which copyright protection has expired (see this chart that shows when copyrighted works enter the public domain: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.
  • Which were created by a federal government agency (works created by state or local government agencies may require permission for use).
  • Which the author has explicitly dedicated to the public domain. If there is no explicit statement on a work to this effect, do not assume that it is in the public domain.

You also may not need to seek permission if the author has explicitly licensed their work for certain types of re-use with a Creative Commons or similar license. If such a license is used, make sure your intended use is allowed by the license (if it is not, you will either need to seek permission or rely on fair use).

If, however, you are using or copying any portion of a copyrightable work (whether text, images, music, film, etc) that is not in the public domain or licensed for your type of proposed use, your use will fall into one of these categories:

  • Use is covered by the academic exemption for displays/performances
  • Use is covered by the TEACH Act
  • Use is considered fair use after applying the “four factors” test
  • Use is not covered by an academic exemption or does not qualify as fair use

If your proposed use falls into the last category, you must seek permission to use that work.

How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?

You can ask for it. If you know who the copyright owner is, you may contact the owner directly. If you are not certain about the ownership or have other related questions, you may wish to request that the Copyright Office conduct a search of its records or you may search yourself. See the next question for more details.

How do I know who to ask for permission?

Look for a copyright notice on the work – it will usually have the © symbol, or say “Copyright”, next to the copyright holder’s name(s).

If there is no copyright notice on the work, visit the Copyright Office website for help.

Be careful – the author of a work is not always the copyright holder. Copyrights can be assigned to other people or bodies, such as publishers, corporations, etc.

How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?

It depends. There are several limitations to copyright protection — especially in relation to educational uses. The broadest limitation to copyright is fair use (§ 107, US Copyright Law), which states that it is permissible to use limited portions of a work, including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting (or prohibiting) the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work.

Does the TEACH Act apply to anything I do in a face-to-face classroom?

No. The TEACH Act only applies to online course activities (e.g. Moodle, iTunes University, or other online course delivery methods).

Do I own the copyright for everything I create or publish?

For every original work of authorship that you create, you own the copyright. However, if you publish that work, you may be asked to sign some rights over to the publisher. You may also transfer your rights to another person or party if you wish.

Are copyright infringement and plagiarism the same thing?

No. Plagiarism means that you have not given proper credit for words or ideas taken from another person’s work. Copyright infringement means that you have violated the exclusive rights of the copyright holder to use or reproduce his/her work. Plagiarism is about giving credit for the use of another’s work; copyright is about having the right to use it in the first place.

You should always include a citation when you are using elements – whether words, ideas, images, etc – of another person’s work. However, do not assume that because you have cited it that you also have permission to use it.

Most limited uses of copyrighted material for academic purposes (teaching, writing, etc) are allowed by fair use and do not require permission. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with what does and does not constitute fair use.