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Copyright: About Copyright Law

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Copyright  A legal system intended to encourage creative and practical creation. Gives the copyright holder exclusive rights to distribute, reproduce, etc. the work.  Fair Use  A part of copyright law that allows for limited, ‘socially beneficial’, uses of copyrighted materials.  Public Domain  Works that are not protected by copyright and can be used and adapted without restrictions.   Creative Commons  A tool that is intended to make copyright law more flexible. Opt-in on the part of the copyright holder.

On this page, learn more about these important aspects of copyright, defined briefly above. 

This page goes somewhat in-depth on these concepts and includes legal language which may be difficult to read, comprehend, and interpret. Please reach out to us to learn more or discuss how these issues may apply to your specific example or situation.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal protection granted to creators of original works.  According to section 106 of the United States copyright law, copyright owners have the exclusive rights to do and authorize the following:

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Public Domain

If a work is in the public domain, it is not protected by copyright and may be used and adapted without restriction.  

The public domain includes all works that never had copyright protection, as well as works that no longer have copyright protection. Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain, as well as most works created by the United States government. 

Fair Use

Under the Fair Use doctrine of copyright law, an author may make limited use of another author’s work without asking permission. Fair use allows for the reproduction of copyrighted work for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. The following four factors are used to determine if a use is fair:
  • the purpose and character of the use

  •  the nature of the copyrighted work

  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work

Promoting progress...

The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Tımes to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

-United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8

Copyright Basics

U.S. Copyright Law states that to be protected by copyright, works must be original, and fixed in any tangible medium of expression. 

The following types of works are covered by copyright in the U.S.:

  • literary works
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a licensing system designed to make it easier for people to share their open access works with others. A Creative Commons license is a special form of copyright license that is used by creators to indicate that the public may use, share, and sometimes even build upon their work.  For more information, see Creative Commons Website

Search Creative Commons

There are several kinds of CC Licenses, some of which are more restrictive than others.  It is important to review the terms of the license for anything that you want to use.  Keep in mind that if you plan to alter a CC licensed work in any way (for instance, modify a photo in Photoshop, edit a video, etc.) the license must be one that allows you to make derivatives.  You can find more information about the various CC Licenses here

Always check rights carefully! Note that some images with Creative Commons licenses are derived from sources that are protected by copyright