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Copyright and Creative Commons

A quick guide for faculty

What Is Copyright?

In general, copyright law serves two major purposes:

  1. Utilitarian: to encourage the creation of new works by incentivizing creators
  2. Author’s rights: to protect an author’s control over the integrity of their creative works

Copyright protects expressions of ideas, including literary and artistic works; translations, adaptations, arrangements of music and alterations of literary and artistic works; and collections of literary and artistic works.

 Copyright applies the moment a creative work is expressed — as soon as you write down the lines of a poem or draw a cartoon mouse. No registration is required. Unless the author or creator specifies otherwise, all rights are reserved and no reproduction, distribution, or derivative use are allowed without permission from rights holder.

The Public Domain

Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright laws. Anyone is free to reprint, reuse, redistribute, republish, and re-purpose these works freely.

There are three main categories of public domain works:

  1. Works that are not protected by copyright and therefore enter the public domain upon creation, including:
    1. Facts and theories
    2. Laws, government works, and government documents
    3. Short phrases, titles, names, and familiar symbols and numbers (although these may be protected under trademark law)
  2. Works that have entered the public domain because copyright has expired or the author or creator failed to follow copyright renewal laws. In the US, works published in 1923 or before are in the public domain. Copyright renewal laws have allowed some works created between 1924 and 1989 to enter the public domain, but in general it’s good practice to assume that anything published after 1923 are protected by copyright.
  3. Works that have been deliberately placed in the public domain by the author or creator.

For an extremely thorough guide to copyright and fair use, see the Stanford University Libraries’ guide to Copyright & Fair Use.

Fair Use

Sometimes you can use copyrighted works in an educational context without violating copyright law. If you are concerned about whether fair use applies, the best thing to do is to bring your materials to the Course Content office. The librarians in that office will evaluate copyright restrictions and, when possible, make the materials available to your students while observing copyright law.

The four factors to consider in determining what constitutes fair use are:

  • the purpose and character of the use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • how much of the copyrighted work is being used
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market

For an overview of fair use, please watch “Fair Use in 2 Mins,” a video guide from April Hathcock, the Director of Scholarly Communications & Information Policy at NYU and former intellectual property and antitrust lawyer.