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Creative Commons and Copyright: Home


This page discusses the purpose of copyright, what is copyrightable and what is not, the relationship between copyright and other methods of protecting intellectual property, how a person receives copyright protection for their work, the public domain,

What is Copyright?

Copy (aka copyright) Tells the Story of His Life, by FixCopyright. CC BY 3.0.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of original works In the United States, copyright protection is automatic from the moment the original work of authorship is in a tangible form of expression

What is copyrightable?

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds
  8. Architectural works

(From the "Circular 1 Copyright Basics" document, the U.S. Copyright Office.)

How long does copyright last?

For works created after January 1, 1978, the length of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years. If the work has multiple authors the life of the author refers to the last surviving author.

Works created before January 1, 1978, has a different rule depending on when it was published or registered. If works were created before January 1, 1978 and were not published or registered by that date, the length of copyright is generally the same as for works created on or after January 1, 1978. If however, the work was published or registered before January 1, 1978, the initial length of copyright is twenty-eight years from the date of publication with notice or from the date of registration. At the end of the term, copyright could be renewed for an additional sixty-seven years for a total length of ninety-five years. (From the "Circular 1 Copyright Basics" document, the U.S. Copyright Office.)

Fair Use

Fair Use is established in the United States under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code and refers to any copying of copyrighted material done in a limited or transformative manner, for example, a comment, critique, or s parody of a copyrighted work. These types of uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner and would not be copyright infringement. 

Most fair use analysis falls into two categories: (1) commentary and criticism, or (2) parody and provides the parameters for the legal use of a copyrighted work without seeking the permission of the copyright holder. There are four factors that must be considered in determining if the use of the work is fair.

  1. the purpose and character of the use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the extent of the work as a whole
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for the work

Some of the exemptions include:

  1. for the purpose of research or private study,
  2. for criticism or review,
  3. for reporting current events,
  4. in connection with a judicial proceeding,
  5. performance by an amateur club or society if the performance is given to a non-paying audience, and
  6. the making of sound recordings of literary, dramatic or musical works under certain conditions.

Fair Use Evaluator: A tool to help you determine if your use of a copyrighted work falls under fair use.

Copyright and Fair Use Animation CC BY 3.0

Copyright Law

Copyright Law

Nick Youngson -  Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0

Rationale for Copyright

Copyright ensures the rights of authors over their creations are safeguarded, by protecting and rewarding creativity which is the keystone of progress in society. The protection encourages creators to create more and motivates others to create.

Copyright is a right given by the law to creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works and producers of cinematograph films and sound recordings. It is a set or bundle of exclusive rights to control who can copy, distribute, perform, adapt, or otherwise use the work.  It is a bundle of rights including, rights of reproduction, communication to the public, adaptation, and translation of the work. 

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights to control who can:

  • reproduce the work in copies or phonographs
  • prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • perform the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • display the work publicly if it is a literary work, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. 

Who owns the copyright? The copyright of a work belongs to the creator. However, there are instances when the creator may not be the holder of the copyright, for example, if the work was made for hire. This means that person or entity who hired the creator has the copyright. This mainly applies to the working environment as seen in the situations below:

1. When the work is created by an employee as part of the employee’s regular duties, or

2. When an individual and the hiring party enter into an express written agreement that the work is to be considered a “work made for hire” and the work is specially ordered or commissioned for use as:

• A compilation

• A contribution to a collective work

• A part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work

• A translation

• A supplementary work

• An instructional text

• A test

• Answer material for a test

• An atlas

Copyright is automatic.  Copyright is automatically applied to an original work once it appears in a tangible medium. Additional steps can be taken to enhance the protection of copyright such as registering the work. Although registering a work is not mandatory, for U.S. works, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation. You can register your work online through the U.S. Copyright Office Registration Portal.

Protecting Your Copyright. To protect their copyright, copyright holders can file a civil lawsuit in federal court when an infringement occurs. The copyright holder must prove that their copyright is valid and that the defendant's actions infringed those rights. If found guilty the court can demand the offending party to stop using the copyrighted material and to pay the copyright holder restitution.

For more detailed information on everything discussed above see the "Circular 1 Copyright Basics" document produced by the U.S. Copyright Office.

What is Not Protected by Copyright

Copyright does not protect:

  1. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  2. Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  3. Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  4. Familiar symbols or designs
  5. Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  6. Mere listings of ingredients or contents

(From the "Circular 1 Copyright Basics" document, the U.S. Copyright Office.)

Trademarks and Patents

Intellectual property is the term applied to the legal rights of creators to restrict others from using their creative works without their permission. Copyright is one type of intellectual property, trademarks and patents are others.

Trademarks: The purpose of trademarks is to help customers distinguish between products and to protect a trademark owner's investment and reputation. Typically a trademark protects brand the names and logos used on goods and services.

Patents: A patent is a right granted to an inventor that permits an inventor to exclude others from making, selling, or using the invention for a specified period of time. Patents are designed to encourage inventions that are unique and useful to society.

The Public Domain

Public Domain:

The term “public domain” refers to materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. These materials are now owned by the public rather than an individual author or artist. Works in the public domain can be used by anyone but no one can ever own it.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.

The public domain is an important concept since it provides the opportunity for works to be freely used and shared by anyone. Creators can choose to place their work in the public domain by using Creative Commons licenses such as the CC0 (CCZero) Public Domain DedicationCC0

A list of Public Domain resources can be found at this link.

Understanding Copyright, Public Domain, and Fair Use by


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Creative Commons License
Creative Commons & Copyright LibGuide by Devika Ramsingh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on 06/12/2020 CC Certification Certificate for Librarians course under a CC BY 4.0 license.
This guide is adapted from Creative Commons & Copyright LibGuide by Tom Eland Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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