Below are some questions the Library is frequently asked regarding copyright and Fair Use. They are based on information from copyright resources studied by the Library's Copyright Committee and are not meant to serve as legal guidance, but to provide basic information about the nature of copyright. If the question you have is not found in the list below, please contact any member of the Library's Copyright Committee for further assistance.
Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright
What is copyright?
The exclusive right of a creator to reproduce and market their intellectual property (creative works) to the public for limited times (usually for 70 years after creator’s death). Under U.S. law this includes derivative works, distribution, display, performance, and digital transmission. If a person other than the copyright holder uses one of these rights before the limited time is up, could be legally guilty of copyright infringement. Foreign publications are given the same protection through international intellectual property agreements.
What can be protected by copyright?
• Dramatic works
• Pictures, sculptures, and graphic art
• Movies and other audiovisual works
• Sound recordings
What is the public domain?
Materials that are no longer or never was protected by copyright. Anyone may exercise the rights of a copyright holder with these materials. See our web resources section for assistance in determining whether or not materials are in the public domain. Just because something is out of print does not mean it is in the public domain. Also, works in the public domain can be republished, and the new version will then be protected by copyright.
What is fair use?
Fair use is an exception written into the copyright law to allow for users to exercise some of the copyright holders rights, such as making a copy, without permission under certain conditions, including educational purposes. Four factors are weighed to determine if a use is “fair” including the purpose of the use, the nature of the work, the amount of the work used, and the potential market effect for the copyright holder. Click here for a sample Fair Use checklist, though this is just a guideline and not a black and white answer. Determining Fair Use is often ambiguous, so you may want to consult someone with some knowledge of copyright to assist you with the process. The Library will complete this process for materials submitted for course reserves.
Can a student or faculty member create a web site or other project using various materials protected by copyright and used without permission?
It all depends. Each item used must be evaluated for Fair Use, though if the product is a course requirement and the final product is not made publicly accessible – e.g. though the web – then the use is generally considered fair.
Is there “personal fair use?”
Yes, individuals may make copies of copyrighted works or compilations for their own personal use – as when you tape a tv show for later viewing. However, if you share those copies either physically or digitally – even with just a small number of people like a study group – you could be held liable for copyright infringement.
Why should someone worry about infringement?
Under copyright law, infringement can result in financial penalties with the court having discretion to allow the recovery of full costs plus attorneys fees, which could be substantial. Criminal and civil charges may apply.
If there is no copyright notice on the material, can it be used without permission?
Not necessarily, as not all copyrighted works have a notice of copyright. If the copyright holder cannot be determined, you may want to think twice about using the resource.
Are plagiarism and copyright the same thing?
Both concepts refer to the use of another person’s creative expression, or intellectual property. Plagiarism refers to passing another’s material in any amount off as ones own, intentionally or accidentally, and there are no time limitations. Copyright, however, is protection given to creators to control their own intellectual property for a limited time. Another difference is that is is possible to plagiarize ideas, which copyright does not protect.
So if credit is given to the creator, then are there no copyright concerns?
No, copyright is still an issue if the material is used in a way that is infringing.
Why would an author need permission to use material they have written?
The author is not necessarily the copyright holder, as often publishers require authors to release copyright upon submission. In these cases, the publisher is the copyright holder.
Is it allowable to make a compilation of small video clips for a project or presentation?
No. Video compilations are currently prohibited, however there are many online resources where video clips may be found and used. Portions of copyrighted works may be used in multimedia creations, such as presentations, if Fair Use applies and the two year limitation on use is followed.
Is copyright the same for digital and analog materials?
While the law is supposed to be technologically neutral, in reality users of digital works cannot use them in the same way as analog works because of technological measures taken by the copyright holders to prevent piracy. Any attempt to circumvent these technological protections is a violation of copyright law.
Are any special permissions needed to perform or broadcast a music or dramatic piece?
If the performance is within a face-to-face classroom setting, the use is generally allowable. Other performances and broadcasts generally require performance rights be purchased.
Can performances be recorded?
Fair Use makes this activity generally allowable, as long as the recordings are not made available for purchase and distribution is limited to involved parties, such as student participants or their parents. However, if the performance rights were purchased under a licensing agreement, recordings may be prevented under the terms of the contract. Contract law always trumps copyright law.
Can images be used if they are manipulated first in Photoshop?
This is creating a derivative work, which would be a copyright infringement. If enough of the image were changed so that is had no resemblance to the original, the use might qualify as fair.
I don’t have time to identify the copyright holders. Does the US Copyright Office provide a service for identifying copyright holders?
Yes, at an expense of $65 per hour. Responses take anywhere from several weeks to several months. Or you could contact the Library’s Copyright Committee for assistance.