Copyright covers original creative works of authorship fixed in tangible form. Books, recorded music, movies, paintings, and sculptures are all protected by copyright. Even notes you take in class, if they are in your own words, are copyrighted. But inventions, discoveries, recipes, useful articles (such as furniture or clothing), and other non-creative works are not protected by copyright. Facts and ideas are not protected either, but the original expression of ideas is protected.
This short video discusses the difference between unprotected ideas and the protected expression of ideas.
Works receive copyright protection as soon as they are created. A work can be protected by copyright whether or not it has a copyright notice and even though it is available to the public. For example, most public websites are protected by copyright. The copyright symbol © indicates that a work is protected, but copyright protects works with or without the ©.
Copyright protection is limited; it does not last forever. In the United States, copyright last for 70 years beyond the creator’s death. When the copyright protection for a work expires, the work enters the public domain and people can use the work however they want.
All works published before 1923 are in the public domain as well as some more recent works. This chart will help you determine if a work has entered the public domain.
Copyright gives creators exclusive rights over use of their protected works. If you don’t own a work’s copyright, you need permission from the copyright owner to legally:
Otherwise, you infringe the copyright in the work (unless there is an exception to the copyright owner’s exclusive rights; see below). Note that linking is not one of the exclusive rights. You can always link to content on the Internet, copy the links, and share them with others.
The rights of copyright owners are not absolute. Copyright law identifies some situations where the public need to use a work outweighs the creators’ right to control the work. In those situations, the law creates exceptions to the copyright owners’ rights. If an exception applies, you can use the work without permission and you do not infringe the copyright. Three of these exceptions are the first sale doctrine, the teaching exception, and fair use.
The first sale doctrine states that once a person owns a legal copy of a protected work, that person maydistribute or publicly display the copy. In other words, once you buy a book or other work, you can show it to people and can sell, loan, or give it to someone else without the copyright owner’s permission. Used book stores, libraries, and sites such as eBay all depend on the first sale doctrine to sell or lend copyrighted works.
The teaching exception lets teachers and students in a class show movies, play music, display photos, and otherwise perform or display copyrighted works without permission. But this exception does not apply to copying works. For example, if you create a PowerPoint presentation, you do not need permission to show copyrighted images, but you do need permission to copy the images into the presentation (unless another exception applies).
The teaching exception applies to Online classes, but the Copyright Act applies special rules through the TEACH Act. The University of Louisville Copyright Guidelines and Resources page and the University of Texas Copyright Crash Course explain the TEACH Act and how to use the teaching exception in an Online class.
Fair use is a standard for balancing the rights of copyright owners and the needs of the public. Unlike the other exceptions, there are not specific rules for when fair use applies. Instead, the standard looks at four factors to determine if a use is “fair use”:
Each factor can weigh for or against fair use, depending on whether the use benefits society more or less than it hurts the copyright owner. If the response to a factor suggests more benefit than harm, the factors tips toward fair use. If a response suggests more harm than benefit, the factor tips away from fair use. The total balance of the factors determines whether a use is fair use.
To help users apply fair use, Kenneth D. Crews (formerly of Columbia University) and Dwayne K. Butler (University of Louisville) created a fair use checklist that lists possible responses to each factor and says whether each response weighs for or against fair use. The checklist is free to download use under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Creative Commons is a way for creators to give blanket permission to the public to use their copyright works. Creative Commons is a set of standard licenses. A license is attached to a work and gives a set of requirements for use, such as attributing the work to the creator or using the work for only non-commercial purposes. You have permission to use a Creative Commons work as long as you satisfy the requirements.