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Copyright and Fair Use

A guide for creating and using copyrighted materials in education.

What is copyright?


U.S. copyright law (Title 17 of U.S. Code) defines what owners of copyrighted works can do with respect to copying, distributing, performing, or creating derivitive works.  The owners can determine what others can do with their work by transferring ownership or granting licenses for specific activities.

What is protected under copyright law?

Original works protected by copyright law must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" and may consist of the following categories:

  • literary works, including computer code
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works (dance)
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

To be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" means that the work can be saved in some form, such as a computer file, sound recording, or even a napkin.

Works must also contain some originality, rather than being a collection of factual information where no original content is provided.

Any original work created in the United States receives automatic copyright protection without the need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.  However, many copyright owners choose to register their works so they can receive the full benefits of the law.

Copyrighted works may or may not display a copyright symbol (©).  You do not need a copyright symbol to have your work protected by copyright law.

What is not protected by copyright?

  • Works that are not fixed (e.g. improvised speech)
  • Titles, names, slogans
  • Ideas, facts, data
  • List of contents or ingredients
  • Items in the public domain

When do I need to consider copyright law?

In education, copyright issues arise anytime you...

  • Post a reading to your course Moodle page
  • Distribute copies of readings in class
  • Add readings to library course reserves
  • Show images, graphs, or videos to your class or a group
  • Use images in a handout or brochure
  • Share a reading or article via e-mail

Fortunately, Section 107 of the Copyright Law provides allowances for the fair use of copyrighted materials "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research."   See the Fair Use tab for more information about Fair Use.

What does it mean to be in the public domain?

Works in the public domain are considered "public property" and can be used by anyone, without the need to seek permission.  They may consist of works whose copyright have expired, works placed in the public domain by their creators, and works ineligible for copyright protection.  Works created as part of government work are also in the public domain.

What other models exist for sharing copyrighted work?

Modern approaches to copyright take the form of alternative licensing practices and access models that provide content creators with more options for sharing their work.  These consist of Creative Commons licenses and Open Access journals.  In both cases, original authors maintain the copyright to their works, but are only choosing to make their work more accessible.

Creative Commons licenses have a basic approach that allows content owners to share their work openly, with pre-defined limitations on how they are attributed, how their work can be used, and by what types of institutions.  Works with a Creative Commons license are usually clearly labeled with the specific license, which will indicate any attribution and use limitations.

Open Access journals are an alternative to traditional scholarly publishing mechanisms where copyright is typically held by the publisher, who determines licensing for use of individual journal articles.  Open access journals are published on the open web and accessible to all for downloading, linking, and sharing.  Another form of open access publishing is posting your work to your own website for sharing.

The Law

Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17)
Complete law by chapter or as a full PDF download.

Also see, The TEACH Act (Senate Report 107-301).  Addresses material posted to course delivery systems, such as Moodle.


Copyright Terms

The following is a summary of copyright terms.  For a complete list, see the Copyright Terms and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell).

Work published Status
Published before 1927 Public domain.  Copyright long expired.
Published 1927 - 1977 (No notice) Public domain. Law required registration from 1923-1977.
Published 1927 - 1963 (With notice, renewed) 95 years after pub date   
Published 1927 - 1963 (With notice, not renewed) Public domain.  Copyright expired.
Published 1964 - 1977 (With notice) 95 years after pub date  
Published 1978 - 2002 Varies.  See link above.
After 2002 Life of author + 70 years. 
Corporate author: Pub date + 95 years
Government publications Public domain.
Foreign works Apply U.S. law

Eckerd College Copyright Policy

Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity

Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity (19 minutes)
November 2007 TED Talk

Lawrence Lessig is the mind behind the Creative Commons model and is an activitist and scholar in intellectual property rights.  He is currently director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.