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Help With ~ Copyright Basics


The U.S. Constitution established copyright (and patent) protections as a means for advancing the public good, giving Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (article I, §3, cl. 8). These rights were subsequently codified by the Copyright Act of 1790 and amended numerous times since to define what works are covered, for how long, and through what process. The Copyright Act of 1976 and its later amendments comprising Title 17 of the United States Code provide the basic framework for the current copyright law.

Below is a brief outline of some important legal considerations for anyone making use of another author's work. For a more complete and detailed discussion of copyright, consult the Hamilton Library's copyright guide, Title 17 of the United States Code and the resource links provided with each topic.

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright protects “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” (17 U.S.C. §102).

  • Works of authorship include literary works; musical works; dramatic works; choreographic works; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works. These categories should be viewed broadly. Some examples: fiction and non-fiction books, computer programs, musical scores and recordings, plays, radio and television broadcasts, dance performances, paintings, photographs, technical drawings, maps, motion pictures, and architecture.
  • Copyright protection in the United States is granted automatically to authors at the point when their work first becomes realized in any stable medium that can be shared. The work does not have to be published, include a copyright notice, or registered with the the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Copyright owners have exclusive rights to reproduce their work, prepare derivatives of their work, distribute copies of their work, and perform or display their work publicly. Each of these rights may be individually transferred or assigned to another party.
  • Copyright terms for works created after 1977 extend for 70 years beyond the author's death. Copyright terms for corporate authors ("works made for hire") extend for 95 years. Copyright terms for works published or registered before 1977 also extend for 95 years. A notable exception to this are pre-1964 works whose copyright was not renewed; these are in the public domain. Some exceptions apply.
  • Permission to use a copyrighted work must be obtained from the owner unless the work is made available through an open license agreement, the work is in the public domain, or the use made of the work meets the law’s “fair use” or other exemptions.

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What Are Open Licenses?

Open licenses grant permission to anyone to use a work at no cost provided they follow the license conditions. Below are some of the most common conditions, which are often combined with one another in licenses.

  • Attribution licenses grant others the right to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon a work as long as credit is given.
  • Share-alike licenses require any new creations derived from a work be shared under identical terms.
  • Non-derivative licenses require any new creations that adapt or build upon a work not be shared at all.
  • Non-commercial licenses require any use of the work be restricted to non-profit or educational uses.

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What Is the Public Domain?

The public domain refers to creative works not protected by intellectual property laws. These works may be used without restrictions and include:

  • Works whose copyright has expired. This includes all works more than 95 years old and a majority of books published before 1964.
  • Works whose copyright owner has expressly waived all their rights.
  • United States government publications.
  • Ideas, facts, and non-creative works.

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What Is Fair Use?

Fair use allows for the reuse of content without the permission of the copyright holder for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. It seeks to balance the rights of copyright owners with the interests of media users. Whether a particular use of copyrighted material preserves this balance is determined with a four-factor test that considers:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

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Hamilton Resources

For a more comprehensive consideration of copyright and additional resources consult:

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