What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship including literary works, musical and dramatic works, pictorial and graphic works, motion pictures and sound recordings, and choreography. These works must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression to be protected by copyright. In other words, they must be written down, saved electronically, or recorded in some other tangible form. Including a copyright symbol is no longer required to receive copyright protection.

What rights are protected by copyright?

Copyright holders are granted exclusive rights in the protected works, including the right to reproduce the work, make derivative works based on the original, distribute the work to the public by sale, and perform or display the work publicly. Copyright owners may also transfer some or all of these rights to others or authorize them exercise them.

How long does copyright last?

The length of copyright protection is a complicated issue because the law has changed over the years. As a general rule, works published after 1977 are protected by copyright for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. The Cornell University Libraries maintain a comprehensive chart of copyright terms and the public domain in the United States. 

What is the public domain?

Creative works in the public domain are not protected by copyright and anyone may use them without seeking permission. There are several common ways that a work may enter the public domain, including:

  1. Copyright on the work has expired
  2. The copyright owner did not properly comply with renewal requirements
  3. The work was purposely placed into the public domain, known as “dedicated to the public domain”
  4. Copyright does not protect that type of work

Works created using public domain content may still be subject to copyright protection.

What is fair use?

Fair use is an exception to copyright that allows the use of copyright protected material without permission from the copyright holder. When determining whether a use would be considered a fair use, four factors should be considered:

  1. The purpose of the use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted material
  3. The amount to be used
  4. The effect on the market for the work

Each of these factors should be weighed when conducting a fair use analysis. Determining fair use should be done on a case-by-case basis. The Office for Scholarly Communication will be happy to meet with you to discuss fair use and how it may apply to your teaching and scholarship.