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What is Copyright?

In simple terms, copyright refers to an author's right to control what happens to their creation, such as whether copies can be made, how the work is distributed or sold, and how the work is used or cited. Copyright has a long history, and the law in the United States has been updated many times over the years, resulting in some complicated rules about when a given work might be "out of copyright" or in the "public domain."

Copyright is a form of protection provided by United States law (Title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors or creators of literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and other intellectual works. From the moment of the fixation of any original work in any tangible medium, the author of that work owns a "copyright" on it. This copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to, or to authorize others to:

  • reproduce (i.e. duplicate, photocopy, etc.) the work
  • prepare a derivative work
  • distribute copies of the work
  • perform the work publicly
  • display the work publicly

The creator can sell or assign any of these rights to someone else, such as a publisher.

See the sections below for more information.

What about Fair Use?

You may have heard of something called the Fair Use Doctrine when it comes to using images or music, making copies of texts, or accessing materials for courses you might be taking or planning to teach. What is Fair Use, and how do you know if it applies to your situation?

Basically, if you are sued for copyright infringement (Eek!) a court can decide that your use leans towards Fair Use by weighing four factors:

  • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work [i.e. are you benefiting from someone else's creativity, or re-contextualizing a factual work? Was it published or unpublished?]
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. [This gets difficult with images but for texts it makes sense that the less you use, the better].
  • Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. [Are you affecting the original author's livelihood by your use?]

More info about Fair Use from the US Copyright Office. The Copyright Advisory Network of the American Library Association's Office of Information Technology Policy has a Fair Use Evaluator tool to help you make a more informed decision about applying Fair Use appropriately.

Fair Use: Fair use (Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code) provides parameters for the legal use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. The law mandates that four factors be considered in determining whether or not a use is fair.

How can I find Public Domain materials?

Make sure you take a look at the Image Copyright tab as there are more resources there.

The Public Domain Review is an interesting source for reviews of images & other notable cultural artifacts that are in the public domain.

There are several categories of works which are in the public domain, meaning there are no copyright restrictions on their use.

  • If a work was published before 1923, its copyright has now expired.
  • Works produced by the United States Government are automatically considered to be in the public domain.
  • There are other odd instances where the use of a work might not be restricted by copyright (e.g. a work published between 1923-1963 whose copyright was not renewed).

Email if you need help determining if a work you are interested in using might be in the public domain.