Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors and other creators to control their original, creative work. The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape. Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:
- Reproduce the work in whole or part
- Prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements
- Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan
- Publicly perform the work
- Publicly display the work
Copyright protects original, creative works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression, that is written down or otherwise saved. This includes works such as literature, dance, painting, photography, music, architectural plans, and more.
For works created since March 1, 1989, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 120 years from the date of creation. Works created before this date can have various copyright protection. The Digital Copyright Slider can be used to help define how long the protection of an item may last.
Copyright Decision Tree
The above flowchart can help in determining if your usage of copyrighted material is allowed. You can also use access this information through the accessible form below.
Evaluating copyright: Things to consider
If a work is not protected by copyright, it is in the public domain. The public domain is a way of referring to those works for which copyright has expired, been forfeited, or to which copyright did not apply. This includes works published prior to 1923, federal government publications, and many state publications. You can do whatever you wish with these works, as they no longer have copyright protections.
Some works published after 1923 are in the public domain as well. These works may have initially been covered by copyright, but said copyright has been allowed to expire. There are a variety of tools available to help you determine whether a particular work is in the public domain or not.
The Copyright Genie is a tool from the American Libraries Association that can determine if a work is covered by copyright and, if it is, when it will no longer be covered.
The Stanford University Copyright Renewal Database is a searchable database of copyright renewal records for books published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963. If a work was published with a © symbol and registered, this database will help determine if it is still covered.
The Catalog of Copyright Entries is also available online through the Internet Archive and Google Books. These scans will cover all copyright entries, but aren’t easily searchable. While copyright renewal had to take place by the 28th year, anecdotal evidence has suggested that entries were not always published promptly. Look for records for 27 to 29 years after the initial copyright date.
The Fair Use exemption considers certain uses of copyright works to be fair uses – that is, to not be copyright infringement. Fair use applies to “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research” (17 U.S.C. § 107).
Fair use determinations must be made for each intended use and are dependent on a balance of the Four Factors of Fair Use. These are:
- Purpose or character of the use
- 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
Tools like the Fair Use Checklist, a roadmap that can help you understand the individual factors and how different uses favor or oppose fair use, the Fair Use Evaluator, which provides the opportunity to describe the use and provide context, and the Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use, which put forth standards of fair use within a discipline, are available to help with fair use determinations.
Perhaps the safest way to use copyrighted work is to request and receive permission from the copyright holder to use the work. When granted such permission, you may be able to use the work in its entirety or other ways that were not allowed through the Fair Use exemption.
In many cases the author-creator of a work is the copyright holders, making it easy to determine who to contact to use the work. In some cases, the publisher may be the rights holder instead. If you are uncertain which of the two the rights holder is, you may need to reach out to one and ask for that information. Finally, if neither the author-creator nor publisher can be tracked down – or if you have, but you’re approaching a deadline and don’t have an answer – Collective Rights Agencies can license works. Beware, however, in many cases a Collective Rights Agency is going to request payment in exchange for permission.
When putting together a permission request, remember to supply the following information:
- Who: Introduce yourself and give credentials that may help explain your use (for example, “I am a student at Western Washington University working on my capstone project”)
- What: What is the copyrighted work you intend to use? Be specific, if you know the page numbers of a certain edition include them. Or if it is a particular photograph, include it in the request.
- When: How long to you intend to use their work? Is this a project you intend to turn in at the end of the quarter? Or are you taking this show on the road, with the intention of several performances over a period of time?
- Where: Where will their work be used? Are you creating a video for YouTube? Are you putting together a handout to go with your class presentation? How many people, if in a closed system, will have access to the final work?
- How: How will the work be used? This is the time to explain if it is an educational use or if you plan to commercialize the final product. Consider all the ways you may wish to use the final product – if you only request to be able to use the music clip in a performance over a certain period of time that may not include permission for using the music in a video of the performance that is shared over the internet.
- Why: Why did you decide to contact this person or organization? Are the author or potentially heir to the author? Are they the publisher?
It’s very possible that you may end up looking for alternatives, not only to a work you intended to use, but alternatives to what copyright or the fair use exemption allows. One of the best places to start is Creative Commons. CC Licenses are a way for copyright holders to declare upfront what kind of use they do and don’t allow with their works.
These licenses come in six varieties, from the most open to the most restrictive.
|License||Abbreviation||Symbol||What does the license allow?|
||Distribute, remix, build upon a work, even commercially, as long as credit to the author-creator is included.|
||Remix and build upon a work, even commercially, as long as credit to the author-creator is included and the same license is used on the new work.|
||Distribute a work, even commercially, as long as credit to the author-creator is included and the work is unchanged.|
|Attribution- NonCommercial||CC BY-NC||
||Remix and building upon a work, as long as credit to the author-creator is included and the use is noncommercial.|
|Attribution- NonCommercial- ShareAlike||CC BY-NC-SA||
||Remix and building upon a work, as long as credit to the author-creator is included, the use is noncommercial and the same license is used on the new work.|
|Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs||CC BY-NC-ND||
||Distribute and share works, as long as credit to author-creator is included, the work is unchanged, and the use is noncommercial.|
Creative Commons is also important to keep in mind as you share your work. If you are interested in using a CC license, the License Chooser helps you determine the best license for works you created.
- Fair Use Evaluator - Like the checklist, however this also provides the opportunity to describe the use and provide context.
- Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use - These codes have been put forth by a number of disciplines, created by working with representatives of those disciplines to create scenarios to explain what is considered to be fair use by those within the discipline.
- Copyright Genie - this tool from the American Libraries Association can help determine if a work is covered by copyright and, if it is, when it will enter the public domain.
- Stanford University Copyright Renewal Database – A searchable database of copyright renewal records for books published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963. This database only covers books, not other copyrightable materials. For those, see the Catalog of Copyright Entries.
- Catalog of Copyright Entries - through Internet Archive or Google Books – scans of volumes of the Catalog of Copyright Entries published by the Registrar of Copyright. These scans cover all copyright entries, not just books, but aren’t easily searchable. While copyright renewal had to take place in the 28th year, anecdotal evidence suggests entries were not always published promptly. If a renewal isn’t found in the 28th year, check the 27th and 29th as well.
- Creative Commons - Creative Commons licenses are a way for copyright holders to declare up front what kind of use they do and don’t allow with their works.