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Copyright and Fair Use

Copyright Basics

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship.” Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

• reproduce the work
• prepare derivative works
• distribute copies of the work
• perform the work publicly
• display the work publicly

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. Sections 107 through 122 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish limitations on these rights. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use,” which is given a statutory basis in section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act.

According to the Constitution, the purpose of copyright is 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". 

In Twentieth Century Music Corp v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151 (1975) the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated, "The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an 'author's' creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good."

To obtain copyright protection a work must:

1. be an original work
2. have at least a modicum of creativity
3. be fixed in a tangible format

Once you create an original work, it is automatically copyrighted. You are not required to place a copyright notice on the work or register it with the U.S. Copright Office.

There are some important benefits if you do use the notice or register the work, but you are the copyright owner even without these formalities.

Based on and used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director.

Works created on or after January 1, 1978

Personally-Created Work: Author's Life plus 70 years;

Corporate Work or Work for Hire: 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation (whichever expires first).

Works created before January 1, 1978

Use the Digital Copyright Slider, an easy-to-use tool created by the American Library Association.

Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include among others:

1. Items in the public domain

  •  works created before 1923
  • works created by the federal government
  • works dedicated to the public domain (often have a Creative Commons Public Domain license)

2. Ideas

3. Facts

4. Works not fixed in a tangible format (unable to be viewed or heard without the creator being physically present)

5. Works of standard information (calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers, etc.)

6. Mere listings of ingredients or contents (recipes, tables of content)