We created this guide to help you understand and navigate some of the complexities of copyright, especially as it pertains to coursework and education.
However, copyright and intellectual property is an extremely complex area of law, and the information in this guide does not constitute legal advice. If you require legal advice, please contact a licensed attorney in the area of intellectual property law.
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
Copyright protects creators. When you, or anyone, authors something in a fixed or tangible form, whether published or unpublished, you have copyright in that creation. That means that, with some exceptions, you have total control over whether, or how, that work is reproduced, shared, published, presented, and disseminated. You have the right to allow others to reproduce it, or conversely, to tell others that they cannot reproduce the work. You likewise have the right to decide who can create something based on your work, and so forth.
In an environment where information is so easily shared and reproduced digitally—and where instruction and coursework are increasingly incorporating digital materials from a wide range of sources—faculty and students must take care to comply with copyright law and University policy on copyright.
Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances.
When an author creates a work in a tangible form, they immediately have copyright in that work—and therefore near-total control of how the work is disseminated, reproduced, or presented. However, there are specific exceptions to that control that allow a work to be reproduced (or partially reproduced). These exceptions are governed by copyright law (and court opinions), and are collectively known as the Fair Use doctrine.
Fair Use allows individuals besides the author to use a work for certain purposes without the permission of the original author or creator. Fair use, like most of copyright law, is a complex question, and whether a use falls in to the "fair use" exceptions depends on the specific work, specific use, and other determinations.
Fair use exceptions generally include:
Be aware, however, that these exceptions do not give you license to use the entire work! In most cases, you are permitted to use small excerpts, quotes, and copies of limited portions of a work. Using the entire work or what might be considered the "heart" or "core" of the work is generally prohibited.
Fair use can sometimes be difficult to determine. To help determine whether your use may fall into fair use, consider both the well-known exceptions above, and read through the Four Factors of Fair Use, as described by the U.S. Copyright Office. These factors can help you figure out if you're using an appropriate amount of a work for an appropriate purpose.
"A work of authorship is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."
-Definitions FAQ, US Copyright Office
Essentially, public domain works are creative works (art, books, etc.) that are freely available for anyone to use, copy, transmit, perform, or remix to their satisfaction. The most familiar public domain works might be books for which copyright law never applied, or for which copyright protections have expired: for example, the works of Edgar Allen Poe or Jane Austen (which are no longer subject to copyright due to the length of time since the authors' deaths).
Well...maybe. While age is a good starting point to consider, it's not always simple to determine whether a work is in the public domain. Different countries have different definitions for public domain items, and as copyright law has evolved, items that may have fallen into public domain under an older version of the law can still be subject to copyright protection under newer versions.
Additionally, some items never qualified for copyright protection, and sometimes a creator will deliberately release a creation into the public domain.
Therefore, it's important to investigate the copyright status of a work before assuming it is in the public domain. There are a couple key clues, however:
Some creators will attach to their creations a specific license that allows others to use the work in certain ways, such as a Creative Commons license. It's very important not to confuse a licensed work with a work in the public domain. Licenses specify exactly what you can do with the work, and it's almost never "whatever you want."
For example, an artist who creates a piece of art may release it under a Creative Commons license with the terms "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike." This means that if you reuse the work, you must
As you can see, that's significantly different from the complete freedom you have to work with, change, and remix public domain works. Remember, if a work is licensed for use - under whatever terms the creator states - the creator still has ultimate control over the work, and you are obligated to adhere to the license terms.