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Copyright: Copyright Fundamentals

A guide to inform faculty and students about copyright, fair use, and more.

Copyright Fundamentals

What is copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright is: "a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works."                                                     

The three requirements for copyright:

  1. original work;
  2. be a work of authorship;
  3. exist in a fixed, tangible medium (applicable to both print and digital mediums)

What does copyright protect?

Under 17 USCS Section 102 the following is protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound Recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

Copyright is format agnostic. It applies to to both print and digital content. i.e., "a fixed and tangible medium".

Who owns the copyright?

  • The author
  • Those deriving rights through or from the author
    • This can include publishers, record labels, descendants of the author, etc.
  • If the work is done as a "work for hire," the author's employer is the copyright holder
  • If the work has more than one author, two or more authors can own copyright

- Derived from the Rebecca P. Butler's 2014 Copyright for Academic Librarians and Professionals

How long does copyright last?

Depending on when a work was created, it may or may not be protected by copyright. Consult the American Library Association's Digital Copyright Slider to see if what you want to use is in the public domain or if it is still covered by copyright.

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain refers to works that are not copyright protected and can be used freely, without seeking permission. It is important to always check carefully to determine if a particular work is really in the public domain before assuming you may use it without permission. 

The following are examples of public domain works:

  • When copyright has expired, materials move to the public domain (see Digital Copyright Slider, above)
  • United States government documents (note: foreign documents may be protected)
  • Materials marked with Creative Commons licenses instead of a copyright symbol (note: different licenses affect sharing, use, and attribution)
  • Factual and non-creative works like telephone books

What does the right of "first sale" mean?

The first sale doctrine allows people who legally purchase copyrighted works to sell or dispose of them as they see fit, with some exceptions. For example, the doctrine lets you loan a legally purchased book or CD to a friend. Libraries have long relied on the first sale doctrine to lend materials to their patrons.

The first sale doctrine was enacted during a time when most copyrighted works were produced in physical formats that made such works difficult to reproduce on a large scale. Many protected works including books are now produced digitally, however, copyright owners have lobbied Congress for new laws that some feel may undermine the "first sale" doctrine.

The first sale doctrine was created when copyrighted works were mostly physical objects that were hard to copy. Today, many protected works, such as books, are digital, and copyright holders have asked Congress for new laws that could weaken the first sale doctrine.

First sale issues are intertwined with licensing and Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) issues. To learn more about the DMCA, please see the American Library Association's Introduction to the DMCA.


Portions of this guide were derived from the Copyright Guide at Butler University Libraries. 

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