What is copyright?


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Copyright Overview


What is copyright?

Copyright law grants the creator the rights to his or her own work for a limited period of time. These include the right to publish, reproduce, sell, display, prepare derivative works of, and perform the work.

What is (and is not) protected by copyright?

All works that are original and fixed (written or recorded on a physical or digital medium) are protected by U.S. copyright law the moment they become fixed.

Titles, facts, processes, government publications, and works in the public domain are some of the types of materials not protected by copyright laws. Ideas are also not protected, only the expressions of an idea are (a written story is protected but the general idea of a story is not).

Is my academic work protected by copyright?

It depends on the policies of the university you are at. At many universities (but not all), the copyright to the research professors produce as well as the course materials they create belongs to them. Similarly, any work students produce for a class belongs to the students. Graduate students typically hold the copyright to their thesis or dissertation but the many universities do retain the right to keep and make copies of the work.

Public Domain

What is the public domain?

The public domain consists of materials that are no longer protected by copyright or that have been deemed not covered by copyright by law (such as federal government documents and facts).

As of right now, copyright protects a work for 70 years beyond the creator’s death and after this, the work falls into the public domain. However, there are many complicated exceptions and situations that can impact the status of a work’s copyright. Thus, while 70 years is a good rule of thumb, always check the status of the specific work you are using.

Exceptions and Limitations

What are exceptions and limitations?

While the copyright holder generally has the sole rights to his or her work, there are some situations where a person who wants to use the work in a specific circumstance can do so. These scenarios are known as exceptions to the law and limitations of the law. While there are quite a few of these, perhaps the best known is fair use (established in Section 107 of the law)

What is fair use?

Fair use is a broad exception to copyright law that allows people to use a work without permission in certain circumstances. There are four factors to consider when judging if your use of material is fair. Keep in mind that these factors are vague so consider them very carefully and document all of your decisions!

What are the four factors of fair use?

  1. Is the character or purpose of your use for-profit or for educational needs? Educational needs are more likely to be considered fair use.

  2. What is the nature of the material you want to use? Generally, works that are factual or published are more likely to be viewed as candidates for fair use than works that are highly creative, fictional, or unpublished.

  3. How much of the work will be used? Using the entirety or heart of the work is rarely considered fair. Using just an excerpt is more likely to be fair.

  4. What effect will your use have on the market for the original material? If the material is reasonably priced and easily accessible, your use may not be considered fair.

Getting Permission

Who do I get permission from?

If your use would not be considered fair, you need to contact the current copyright holder to get permission to use a work. This may be the original author, the publisher, a beneficiary, or someone else entirely.

How do I get permission?

If the copyright holder is the author, you need to write them asking for permission. Be sure to explain your intended use of the work, the section you want to use, how long you plan to use it, and whether you will profit from the use. If the copyright holder is the publisher, there is often information on the publisher’s website explaining how to get permission.

The author never responded!

If an author never responds to your requests it does not mean that you have permission! If you cannot contact the author, alter your use so that it falls under fair use or choose a different work.

Have specific questions that aren’t answered here? Sign-up for our (Title of Copyright Education Workshop) hosted by (Expert’s name), (Your University’s) resident (copyright/author’s rights/etc.) expert. This is a great opportunity to get those questions answered and to learn about copyright issues!

Handout produced by the Copyright Education & Consultation Program

Program funded by a Library Services and Technology Act Grant administered by the Illinois State Library


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