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Copyright Overview: The Basics

  • Copyright is a basic constitutional right afforded to all citizens. The constitution states that the government shall provide "for limited times authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8
  • The right provided is essentially a bundle of permissions allowing the owner the ability to control who can sell, copy, distribute, translate, edit, and perform your works.
  • However as stated above, the length is not perpetual. Current copyright law allows the following terms for copyright length: life of author + 70 years. Or, in the case of work for hire, 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation.
  • Copyright implementation is now automatic; as a result, you do not need to register your work with the US copyright office for copyright protection.
  • You can also transfer your copyrights to a third party if you wish. You can also waive or reserve your rights as thoroughly as you wish. (See Creative Commons for more details on providing specific permissions to potential users of your content.)
  • At the end of the copyright term, copyrighted works fall into the public domain, which means that anyone can use them without permission of the original creators or copyright holders.
  • There are some limitations to the enforcement of copyrights. Educators can invoke these limitations to use copyrighted materials often without written consent of the copyright owners. These include Section 107 (Fair Use doctrine), Section 110.1 (Classroom Exemption) and Section 109 (Doctrine of first sale).
  • The use of copyrighted materials needs to be examined from a use basis – case by case, a person should decide whether to seek permission or not. As outlined in the diagram below, if one follows a series of steps, one can easily and legally make use of much content available:

Copyright use workflow diagram "I want to use this great [image, article, quote, clip]. Can I use it?"

Text alternative for infographic:

If you want to add an image, article, quote, clip, or other work to your own, consider the following questions:

  1. Is it covered by copyright?
    • If not, is the work in the Public Domain or tohersiw not eligible for copyright protection? If it's not either of those, then you can make legal use of it.
    • If so, go to question 2.
  2. Is your intended use explicitly permitted?
    • You may make legal use of the item if there a copyright exemption/exemption for your type of use, if the resource is licensed through your library and the license permits your use, or if the item permits your use under a Creative Commons license.
    • If not, go to question 3.
  3. Is your intended use Fair Use?
    • Have you carefully examined all four fair use factors and concluded that your use seems fair? Then go ahead and use it.
    • If your intended use cannot be construed as Fair Use, go to question 4.
  4. Can your get the copyright owner's permission?
    • If you receive a written or verbal confirmation of your request from the owner of the copyright, then you may make legal use of the item.
    • If permission is denied, consider some alternatives: revise your intended use, use a different work, buy a personal copy of the work, or seek legal advice.