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Tutorials in This Section:

I. Copyright Basics

II.  Using Copyrighted Materials

I.  Copyright Basics

     A.  What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection given to original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It arises automatically as soon as the work is fixed and does not require publication or registration. Copyright does not exist: for facts or ideas, for materials lacking a modicum of originality, or for works created by federal government employees within the scope of their employment.

     B.  Why and how would you register your work?

One of the better reasons to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is to improve the type of damages you could request in a copyright infringement lawsuit. It's easy to do and relatively inexpensive. The forms are on the U.S. Copyright web site and there are accompanying instructions for use.

    C. Works.  All kinds of works are eligible for copyright protection including literary works; musical works; dramatic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; pantomimes and other choreographic works; and architectural works.

    D.  Copyright Notice:   No longer required for works created after 3/1/89 [©, date, name]   So just because a copyright notice is absent, do not assume that it is not under copyright.

Practice Pointer: Nothing prevents you from placing a copyright notice on your own work.  In fact, it's a good idea.  It lets people know that your work indeed is copyrighted.  You can also link terms and conditions of use to your work, if you like.  For example, you might want to allow non-profit educational uses but not commercial uses.   An example might be: "As a general rule, you may print, reproduce, and use the information from this Web site for noncommercial, personal, or education purposes. Redistribution or commercial uses are prohibited without express written permission."  You can also build your own "license" using the Creative Commons web site.

    E. Rights of the Copyright Holder

To reproduce the work
To prepare derivative works
To distribute copies of the work
To publicly perform the work
To publicly display the work directly or by telecommunication and
The right to publicly perform a sound recording by digital transmission

Practice Pointer: These rights can be "unbundled" or separated when being licensed or transferred.  That is, it is not an "all or nothing" transfer of rights; you can allow some rights to go while retaining others for yourself.

  F.  Term or Length of Copyright

Copyright protection lasts a long time but not forever. [it just seems that way]
For works created January 1, 1978 or after, the copyright protection extends for the life of the author plus 70 years.

For works made for hire, anonymous, or pseudonymous works, copyright protection extends 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation,whichever is shorter.

Public Domain: If a work is in the public domain, it can be used for any purpose without violating copyright law. "A public domain work remains in the public domain. Any person may use the public domain work for any purpose - quoting, republishing, critiquing, comparing, or even making and selling copies. Publishing the public domain work in an electronic format with technologically imposed restrictions on how that particular copy of the work may be used does not give the publisher any legally enforceable right to the expressive work, even if it allows the publisher to control that particular copy." United States v. Elcom Ltd., 203 F.Supp2d 1111, 1134 (N.D. Cal. 2002)

To determine if a work is in the public domain is easier said than done since our copyright law has changed many times over the past several hundred years. Works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain in this country.

To determine if a work has entered the public domain through expiration of copyright, sit down, brace yourself, and click on either of these links.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States

When Works Pass Into the Public Domain by Laura N. Gasaway.

Other works in the public domain include works created by a federal government employee within the scope of his/her federal employment and works that lost their copyright protection through failure to comply with U.S. formalities when they were required.

Unpublished works are beginning to fall into the published domain as of December 31, 2002.  If the work has remained unpublished and the creator has been deceased for 70, the work falls into the public domain.  If he/she has only been gone 69 years, wait a year and it will enter the public domain.

Practice Pointer:   Using works that are in the public domain can save you a lot of time and brain damage.  If, for example, you simply need an image of the Eiffel Tower, find a book with a picture published prior to 1923.  Even if the work has been republished, any part of it that has already entered the public domain remains there.

 G.  First Sale Doctrine

A distinction not always recognized is that ownership of the physical item, such as a book or a CD, is not the same as owning the copyright to the work embodied in that item. Under the first sale doctrine (Section 109), ownership of a physical copy of a copyrighted work, like a book, permits lending the item (basis of libraries), reselling the item (used booksellers), disposing of the item, but it does not permit copying the item in its entirety. That is because the transfer of the physical copy does not include transfer of the copyright to the work. A transfer or assignment of copyright must be signed and in writing to be valid.

Practice  Pointer: First sale has never been a popular concept within the publishing industry and, in fact, there has been much talk that first sale cannot exist in the digital environment.  This would be true if you never really buy anything but rather rent it or license it. 

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If you have a copyright question, please contact Shelby Shanks at