Skip navigation
  • Copyright

    What Is Copyright?

    Key Facts About Copyright and Copyright Infringement

    Fair Use

    The Life of Copyright Protection

    Is It Infringement?

    Consortium Library Copyright Guide

    Other Resources

    What Is Copyright?

    According to the United States Copyright Office, copyright is a form of protection provided by law to the authors of “original works of authorship.”

    These works of authorship include literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. Books, plays, films, sound recordings, music videos, video essays, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and architectural works may all have copyright protection.

    Copyright protection is available both to published and unpublished work, as long as the work is original and “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”

    Copyright law is extremely complex and this material can only provide a brief outline of some of the key issues. This is also a very dynamic area of the law, because new technologies raise new copyright issues all the time.  For this reason, there may not yet be an accepted answer to all your questions.

    Key Facts About Copyright and Copyright Infringement

    Rights of the Copyright Owner

    Copyright law generally gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to carry out certain acts with the copyright-protected work, such as distribute copies of the work (for example, in the case of books or films); perform the work publicly (for example, in the case of plays); or display the work publicly (for example, in the case of paintings).

    Also, copyright law generally gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to authorize other people to use copyright-protected work in these ways.

    The property protected by copyright law is known as “intellectual property.” Intellectual property can be bought, sold, transferred and bequeathed, in the same way as any other kind of property.

    Copyright Infringement

    Copyright infringement occurs when an unauthorized third party violates the rights of the copyright owner by, for example, copying or distributing a copyright-protected work without the copyright owner’s consent, or without the benefit of one of the legal exceptions to infringement.

    Exceptions to Copyright Infringement

    The rights of the copyright owner are not unlimited. Two major limitations to the rights of the copyright owner are:

    • the principle of “fair use”
    • the fact that copyright protection has a limited life and eventually ceases after a given time period

    Fair Use

    The doctrine of fair use is summed up by the Copyright and Fair Use Website of the Stanford University Libraries as:

    • a principle which is based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for the purposes of commentary and criticism

    For example, if you wish to write a review of a play,or criticize a novel, you should be free to quote a portion of the play or the novel without having to ask permission. If this freedom did not exist, copyright owners could stifle negative comments about their work.

    The rules about what and what does not constitute fair use are complicated. The Fair Use Checklist from Columbia University Libraries can help you determine if the action you intend to take with a copyrighted work is allowable under the fair use provision.

    The Stanford Copyright and Fair Use website includes some information about court cases on fair use which show the facts of each case and the decision made by the court:

    The principles of fair use for academic and educational circumstances are different. The Stanford Copyright and Fair Use site provides an overview of the issues in this area which fall under chapter 7 of copyright.

    In March 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English issued a new policy document about copyright law, wtih a new code of best practices for fair use in media literacy education. The code is available at

    A good faculty resource is the University of Alaska Southeast’s webpage, Copyright and Intellectural property : FAQs for Faculty, at

    The Life of Copyright Protection

    The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. Use this Digital Copyright Slider to determine if the work is under copyright protection.

    As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For example:

    • Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007. Works that he wrote after January 1, 1978 will be protected by copyright until 2077 – 70 years after he died.

    Works that are no longer in copyright are described as being “in the public domain.”

    The law in this area is very complex and if you have concerns about whether a work is still in copyright or not, you should seek advice.

    Is It Infringement?

    In determining whether you may be infringing copyright or not, you will need to consider at least the following issues:

    • Is the work you are concerned with still in copyright or is it in the public domain?
    • If the work is still in copyright, do you have permission from the copyright owner to use the work in the way you wish?
    • If you do not have permission, is your use of the work covered by the principle of fair use?

    Other Resources

    For the nature of copyright, general questions about copyright, and information about registering copyrights:

    For general information about copyright and detailed information about fair use:

    For information geared to librarians and educators:

    Crew, Kenneth D. Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators: Creative Strategies and Practical Solutions, 2nd ed. Chicago, American Library Association, 2006.

    For an excellent tutorial on patents, trademarks and copyrights: