Copyright Basics

Copyright law protects works of “intellectual property” — which are creative expressions of ideas in fixed symbolic form. Books, movies, music, paintings, photographs, websites, images, videogames, performances, architecture, and software are among the many types of creative work protected by copyright.

Copyright grants a bundle of several different exclusive rights.

Understanding the basics about how copyright works and about some of the exceptions to those rights will help you ensure that your creations are used in the way you choose and that you respect others’ rights to control how their creations are used.

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Public Domain & Copyright Duration

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

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

  • the copyright has expired
  • the owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the owner deliberately places it in the public domain (including U.S. government documents)
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.

Copyright Exemptions

The copyright law includes exemptions to copyright that limit the rights of the copyholder. An exemption allows a user to exercise a copyright (like the right to make a copy) without prior permission from the copyright holder under certain conditions. Exemptions like first sale (Sec. 109) and reproductions for libraries (Sec. 108) allow libraries to lend books, hold book sales, provide interlibrary loan service, preserve and replace materials, and make photocopies for library users. Fair use, the grandest exemption, allows users of copyrighted works the right to exercise without permission some of the rights normally exclusively reserved for the copyright holder.

Fair Use

According to law, materials that are subject to copyright restrictions still need to be available to reuse for socially-valuable purposes such as teaching, news reporting, parody, or critical comment. This is called “fair use.”

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.

Unfortunately, the only way to get a definitive answer on whether a particular use is a fair use is to have it resolved in federal court. Judges use four factors in resolving fair use disputes:

  • purpose and character of your use
  • nature of the copyrighted work
  • amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • effect of the use upon the potential market.

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