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Fundamental Principles of Copyright

According to the Columbia Copyright Center, there are two fundamental principles of copyright:

  • Copyright law applies to nearly all creative and intellectual works.
  • Works are protected automatically, without copyright notice or registration.

The Meaning of Copyright Ownership

What does holding a copyright really mean?

  • That the owner holds specific (but not all) rights.
  • That the copyright has an expiration.
  • That the copyright owner may allow public, non-exclusive uses of those rights.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

There’s a lot of information out there about copyright. To help ease the confusion, let’s focus on exactly what is and is not covered under these laws.

Items that are Protected by Copyright Law

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Sound Recordings
  • Audio/Visual Files
  • Art
  • Architecture

Items that are Not Protected by Copyright Law

  • Titles
  • Slogans
  • Taglines
  • Ideas/Concepts
  • Procedures/Methods/Systems
  • Lists of Ingredients
  • Standard Information
  • Familiar Symbols

Limitations of Copyright Laws

As with all laws, copyright laws have limitations. Examples are listed below:

  • Library Archives
    • Copies of copyright works that are for the purposes of preservation are acceptable under current copyright laws.
  • Educational Use
    • If copyright works are utilized for limited, educational purposes such as learning instruction or examination, then use does not constitute copyright infringement.
  • Temporary Copies
    • Creating backup copies of lawfully purchased products (e.g. software), is acceptable under current copyright laws.
  • Special Formatting
    • Revising copyright work that is specifically formatted for use by individuals with disabilities is acceptable under current copyright laws.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use basically means we can use copyrighted materials for teaching (discussed in Sections 107 and 108 of the Copyright Act). The fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

Before you use copyrighted material, evaluate the four factors of fair use:

  • The purpose and character of use
  • The nature of the work
  • The amount of the work being used
  • The effect on the market

This is most easily done by asking yourself the questions below.

The Who, What, Why and How of Copyright

When evaluating whether you can use copyrighted material in your course, ask yourself the following questions: 

1. Who does the use of this material affect financially?

Does your use of the material provide an opportunity for learners to bypass purchasing those materials? In other words, have you supplied your class with printouts of copyrighted images that you purchased for personal use?  If so, then you are directly affecting the financial gain of the copyright owner, which would be a violation of copyright law. 

Tip: Use the public domain, creative commons, and copyright free images from sources like Unsplash, Pixabay and Free Images

2. What amount or portion of the work is being used?

Are you sharing with learners a page from a textbook or have you scanned the majority of the book’s chapters to share with them? Scanning a large amount of material can directly impact the financial gain of the copyright owner, which would be a violation of copyright law. 

Tip: Supplying a scanned copy of the first few chapters is a terrific way to support immediate learning (particularly if students wait until the last minute to order textbooks) without violating copyright laws. 

3. Why is the work being utilized?

Is it for educational or commercial use? Are you presenting these items to your class, or online for a personal website? If copyright works are utilized for limited, educational purposes, then such use does not constitute copyright infringement.   

4. How would you define the nature of the copyrighted work?

Are you reproducing factual (charts, graphs, data) or creative (musical compositions) work? Factual work is much more likely to be considered fair use than creative artistic works.

Six Tips to Avoid Copyright Infringement

  1. Always assume there is a copyright.
  2. Read/research before using intellectual property that is not yours.
  3. Contact the owner of the intellectual property – ask for conditions/terms of use.
  4. Understand the nuances of fair use.
  5. Source materials from the public domain.
  6. Create your own, or pay for original work. 

Copyright Resources

Additional copyright resources including Fair Use and the TEACH Act may be found below:

Copyright (General)

Fair Use

The TEACH Act 

Copyright Assistance

The staff of the Steen Library can assist you in identifying and providing access to copyrighted material.  Please contact them through the Ask A Librarian service. Services include purchasing materials or helping with linking to articles, book chapters and videos through the Library’s e-collection.