Copyright for Students

What is Copyright?

Copyright protects original forms of expression. The 1976 Copyright Act states, "Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."     -- US Code, Title 17, Section 10

What works are protected?

Literary works
Musical works
Dramatic works
Pantomimes and choreographic works
Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
Sound recordings
Architectural works
-- US Code, Title 17, Section 102

What is NOT protected?

"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." -- US Code, Title 17, Section 102

Documents produced by the federal government are also not protected by copyright. -- US Code, Title 17, Section 105

What are the rights of copyright owners?

Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
Distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly
In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly
In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission
-- US Code, Title 17, Section 106

How long does copyright last?

The Copyright Act of 1976 and the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years, or in the case of corporate authorship, either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter). Laura Gasaway, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law Library, has created an excellent chart illustrating copyright term limits and public domain. 

What is Fair Use?

The Copyright Act does include several exemptions or limitations to copyright protection (Sections 107-112). The broadest of these is fair use (Section 107). The fair use exemption states that "Fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies . . . for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research, is not an infringement of copyright." -- US Code, Title 17, Section 107

Consider four factors to determine whether a use of copyrighted materials falls under fair use:
1) Purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2) Nature of the copyrighted work [creative or factual]
3) Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4) Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work
-- US Code, Title 17, Section 107

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is a serious offense and can include costly penalties. Copyright owners can seek "statutory damages" of as much as $30,000 for each work, and those committing the infringement can be held responsible for court costs and attorneys' fees. If the infringer acted "willfully," with knowledge of infringement, the damages may rise to $150,000 for each work and the infringer may face criminal charges. The law does, however, try to protect the educator or librarian in an academic community who acts in good faith. If an infringer can prove that he/she took reasonable steps in following copyright laws and guidelines, the court must reduce the statutory damages, which can be the most costly part of the penalties.