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