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Rules of Copyright
What is "copyright"?
What does copyright protect?
What sorts of materials are covered?
How do I know if something is copyrighted?
Can I make a copy of something that is copyrighted?
What is not covered by copyright?
How long do copyrights last?
What is "public domain"?
When and how do I get permission from the author or publisher of a work?
How can I learn more?
Copyright is a Federal Law, Title 17, U.S. Code, that provides: "a form of protection … to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works." For more information, you can go to the U.S. Copyright Office for the complete listing of the copyright legislations.
Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of a work the following rights:
- To display the work publicly.
- To reproduce or make copies of the work.
- To prepare derivative works based upon the work.
- To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale,lease or lending.
- To perform the work in public, including through a digital transmission.
If you want to make use of copyrighted material in any of these ways, you need to cite the source of the work and you also need to get permission from the author or publisher.
The U.S. Copyright Office lists the following as copyrightable materials:
- literary works;
- musical works, including any accompanying words
- dramatic works, including any accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- sound recordings
- architectural works
These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most "compilations" or anthologies may be registered as "literary works"; maps and architectural plans may be registered as "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works."
Rule of Thumb: Assume information is copyrighted until proven differently.
Since 1989 a work is protected as soon as it is created. Notice or registration is no longer required. You should treat material as copyrighted even if it does not have © symbol or does not state "Copyrighted" plus a date anywhere in the material.
Rule of Thumb: You may make one copy for your personal use of copyrighted materials. You need to get the author or publisher’s permission to make more than one copy.
You cannot copyright commonly known ideas, facts, titles, names, short phrases or blank forms. You may use this information without citation or getting anyone's permission.
The rules for how long copyright lasts are complicated and vary depending upon when the work was created. In general, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author(s) plus 70 years. After that time, the work passes into the public domain.(Cornell University has a website that can give you more specific guidance about when works pass into the public domain.)
Works in the public domain may be freely used without permission, but they still need to be cited. You do not have to get an author's permission to use a work in the public domain. However, it is still unethical to treat a work in the public domain as one,s own work. For example, Shakespeare,s plays are in the public domain since the author has been dead at least 70 years. Therefore, you do not have to get anyone's permission to use "Romeo and Juliet"; but you should not use it in a way that implies that you wrote it.
Even with works in the public domain, you need to be careful. “Romeo and Juliet” is in the public domain but the publisher still has copyrights for the particular printed version you may have bought. You can’t buy one paperback of the play and then make multiple copies for your classmates.
If you plan to publicly display (including posting or streaming over the internet) or create multiple copies of a work, you will need to get permission from the author or publisher. Check out Getting Permission under the Information for Faculty/Staff part of this website.
Check out More Resources for links to the U.S. Copyright Office and several helpful university copyright office sites.
Remember that copyright is an area where there is still much ambiguity. Future legislation and court decisions will continue to shape copyright law. Information provided on this website should not be construed as legal advice.