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Copyright and Fair Use Basics: Home

Basic information on Copyright and Fair Use.

United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8

Copyright law of the United States and related laws contained in Title 17 of the United States Code

The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Tımes to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

You can read the full text of the Copyright Law of the United States here

Copyright Law

The Copyright Act provides protection and exclusive rights to creators for their works:  

  • The right to reproduce/copy the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works (e.g. translations)
  • The right to distribute copies of the work by sale or lease or other transfer of ownership
  • The right to publicly perform the work
  • The right to publicly display the work
  • The right to perform audio works publicly by digital means

Copyright protection begins the moment any “original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” While a copyright notice or registration enhances protection of the owner's rights, it is not required by the U.S. Copyright Office. In order to claim damages in the event of infringement, creators need to register their publication/creation within 90 days. A copy of the work and a small fee must be deposited with the Copyright Office. 

Claims for copyright infringement arise when one or more of the exclusive rights belonging to the author or creator occur, but there are exceptions set out in the Copyright Act. Some of these exceptions are: Fair Use (§107 of the Copyright Act), preservation by libraries and archives (§ 108 of the Copyright Act), and performance and display of works in an educational setting (§110 of the Copyright Act).

Peruse the other sections of this Guide to learn more about Copyright Law, exceptions to the law, and other related information. 

Fair Use

There are four factors to consider when determining if something is "fair use" as stated in section 107 of the United States Copyright Act. 

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit, educational purposes and whether the use is transformative, that is the use is for a new audience or a new purpose.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. Use of a purely factual work is more likely to be considered fair use than use of someone's creative work.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyright protected work as a whole.There are no set page counts or percentages that define the boundaries of fair use. Use of an entire work can be fair use if it is necessary to carry out a very transformational purpose that has no effect upon the market for the original.
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyright protected work. This factor looks at whether the nature of the use competes with or diminishes the potential market for the form of use that the copyright holder is already employing.

Public Domain

Public Domain works are not protected by copyright law and, therefore, they are freely available for everyone to use.  There are several ways in which a work passes into the public domain:

  • Work is Not the Type Protected by Copyright Law
    • Ideas, common facts, hypotheses, theories
    • Names, short phrases
    • Discoveries, processes, systems
  • Term of Copyright Protect Has Expired (or was not renewed).
    • Determining the length of copyright on a work can be difficult due to changes in copyright laws and treaties over the years. A lawyer or copyright expert can be consulted in complicated situations. 
    • Cornell created a Public Domain Chart to determine the term of copyright protection on a work. 
    • Generally, works published in the United States prior to January 1st, 1923 are in the public domain. 
  • Copyright Owner Dedicated the Work to the Public Domain. More artists and authors are licensing their works through Creative Commons or otherwise dedicating their work for use by the public. 
  • Work was created by the U.S. Government.

Anything in the Public Domain can be used to support instruction, research, publication, and creative work without needing permission from the original copyright owner. 

Further Reading