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An Introduction to Copyright

The topic of copyright can be overwhelming. It is something that we come into contact with every day, yet not quite something we think about every day. It affects not only writers, but faculty, students, staff and alumni alike. The bright side is that you are probably already a copyright owner! The downside is that if you violate an author’s copyright you are breaking the law.

Note: we are librarians, not lawyers (at least not yet). This post is solely meant to provide information and guidance, not to offer legal advice or guaranteed answers. All copyright issues must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The official definition of copyright comes from U.S. Law and is relatively dense and comes from the U.S. Code, Title 17:

A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for “original works of authorship”, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. “Copyright” literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work.

– U.S. Copyright Office

Copyright falls under the wider umbrella of intellectual property. Also within this category are patents (the lightbulb), trademarks (Apple), and trade secrets (the recipe to KFC chicken or Google’s search algorithm). So what does copyright protect? As the definition infers, copyright protects a lot.

KFC chicken recipe is just one example of a trade secret.
Image by Denys Vitali from Pixabay

Rights of Creators

The point of copyright law is to protect creators and allow them a set of rights that only they have over those creations. They are granted “exclusive” rights- activities that only they are permitted to execute.

There are six exclusive rights mentioned in the copyright law:

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Create derivative works based upon the work (like a movie adaptation.)   
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public. 
  • Perform the work publicly.
  • Display the work publicly. 
  • Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (sound recordings only).

Creators also have the right to grant permission for others to exercise these rights.

In essence, violating copyright law is violating any one or more of those six rights without express permission from the copyright holder. However, there are provisions written into the law to allow certain uses of copyrighted materials for the ‘greater good’ as you will see below.

Limitations to Copyright

It’s also important to note that not everything is protected by copyright and that copyright law is not international. What is and is not protected by copyright law in the United States may have very different protections for works created in other countries.

Copyright law (in the United States) does not cover:

  • Ideas 
  • Facts
  • Procedures or methods of operation
  • Recipes
  • Names or titles
  • Formats or fonts
  • Works created by non-humans

The general theme is that copyrights protect works that have a modicum of creativity and that are expressions rather than the elements making up the expression.

Provisions in Copyright Law

When you read through the six exclusive rights you may start to realize: “Wow, I really can’t do anything with copyrighted works and most works are copyrighted!” Thankfully, this was a consideration when the law was created and there are particular ways you can use copyrighted materials safely and legally.

Copyright law is meant to protect and support the creation of new materials- if you had no protection for that novel you wrote then how would you get paid or even get credit for it? While some creators may not care about the money from their works, it was assumed that people would create less if they did not have these exclusive rights.

However, the writers of the law also wanted to allow for growth, discovery, and education and sometimes that would come from using copyrighted works. This is where the provisions come in. There are quite a few of them and future blog posts will go into more detail about them, but some of the big ones for universities and colleges are: the Classroom Use Exemption, the TEACH Act, and Fair Use. The first two are pretty limiting in what they allow. However, fair use can be used as an academic superpower: protecting creators while allowing for particular uses of their works.

The Library of Congress where the Copyright Office is located.
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay 


In some cases the provisions will not support your intended use of these protected materials. In that case you owe a duty to the copyright holder to license the work. In many cases the hardest part is making sure you find the correct rights holder; sometimes it’s the publisher and not the author that holds the rights to distribution!

Copyright Free Works & Pre-Licensed Works

Beyond the list of types of content that cannot be copyrighted, there’s another area where copyright restrictions do not apply: works in the public domain or works already licensed for use. This can mean a few things:

  • Works have fallen out of copyright due to statutory limitations.
  • They are works created by the federal government (NOT local governments or contractors). 
  • The creator licensed it under a creative commons license (frequently done with Open Educational Resources.)

Common Misconceptions

There are some very prominent misconceptions when dealing with copyright law. The first is that you do not need to worry about the copyright of something if you are crediting the creator. While you should always credit the creator, that does not mean you are not liable for copyright infringement. You must see if you can apply any of the provisions or license the work, even if you credit the creator.

Another misconception is that fair use protects all educational or academic uses of copyrighted works. Just because your use is for academic purposes, does not mean that you can do whatever you want with copyrighted materials.

That there is such a thing as “international copyright.” The copyright law outlined in this post only relates to works created within the United States. Other countries have their own copyright laws. In some cases, it can be even more restrictive than U.S. copyright laws. For example, some countries protect the moral rights of the creator more strictly compared to the U.S. law.

Finally, a misconception is that you can break digital locks on particular types of materials (DVDs, CDs, etc.) in the name of fair use. This is also not accurate. In fact, there have been further laws to combat the breaking of these digital locks, mainly the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA.) If you circumvent these digital locks you might be liable for a lot more than violating copyright laws.

“Don’t Copy that Floppy”: A throwback to copyright in the 90s.

Remember, the library is here to help you navigate these copyright issues. We are not the “copyright police”- that is left up to those losing money due to copyright infringement. However, copyright litigation can be lengthy and expensive and even come with criminal charges and jail time.


If you have any questions regarding copyright, stay tuned for our copyright blog post series which will go over particular copyright topics in more detail. You can also check out our Copyright Research Guide. For specific information regarding copyright and University sanctioned events or publications please contact the Office of Legal Counsel.

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