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Linking to Library Resources: Copyright Basics

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is the section of federal law that stipulates what control authors have over their original works. It is specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, which states:

"Congress shall have the right to [...] promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries"

What's protected by copyright?

§ 102 of U.S. copyright law grants all "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression" copyright protection. Categories works which are specially mentioned include:

  1. literary works
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. sound recordings
  8. architectural works

It is not required to post the © on a work or to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office to ensure that it is protected by copyright, although it can still be beneficial for creators of works to do so.

What ISN'T protected?

"[A]ny idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

What are the rights of copyright holders?

§ 106 of U.S. copyright law grants the following exclusive rights to copyright holders:

  • Make copies
  • Prepare derivative works
  • Distribute copies
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly
  • Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

Any unpermitted use of a copyrighted work in one of the above ways may be considered a copyright infringement.

How long does copyright last?

Works created on or after January 1, 1978: life of the author + 70 years

Works made for hire: 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter

Unpublished anonymous or pseudonymous works, or unpublished works when the date of the author is unknown: 120 years from creation

Works created before January 1, 1978: refer to the chart on Copyright Term and the Public Domain created by the Cornell University Copyright Information Center

Who owns the copyright for joint works, collective works, and works made for hire?

As specified in § 201 of U.S. copyright law, the authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright for that work; "[c]opyright in each separate contribution to a collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole" and belongs to the creator of the specific contribution in question; and "the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared" is considered the owner of the copyright for any work made for hire, except when "the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them."

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement and remedies are discussed in chapter 5 of U.S. copyright law. Penalties can take the form of injunctions; the impounding, destruction, or disposition of infringing materials; actual and statutory damages ranging from $200 to $150,000 per infringement; the payment of attorney's fees and court costs; and/or imprisonment.

Given the potential severity of these penalties, copyright infringement should never be taken lightly. That said, § 504(c)(2)(i) of U.S. copyright law provides a safe harbor for employees of nonprofit educational institutions (like McDaniel College) acting within the scope of their employment:

"The court shall remit statutory damages in any case where an infringer believed and had reasonable grounds for believing that his or her use of the copyrighted work was a fair use."

For help making a fair use determination, please see the Columbia Copyright Advisory Office's Fair Use Checklist, or check out our guide section on fair use.

Copyright Law

The entire text of U.S. Code Title 17 - Copyrights is available through Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute. The following sections are especially relevant to higher education:

See the Cornell Law School's Notes related to Section 110 for details on how to understand educational uses and the development of the law.

Copyright Basics Circular

A wealth of additional information about copyright is available on the website of the U.S. Copyright Office. For a nice overview of copyright, please see their Copyright Basics circular.

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