Copyright Quick Guide

Need a place to start with your copyright question? Copyright law fills volumes, but here are a few points that will help frame the issues:

Fundamental Principles of Copyright

The Meaning of Copyright Ownership

Fair Use and Other Rights of Use

Fundamental Principles of Copyright

Copyright law applies to nearly all creative and intellectual works.

A wide and diverse range of materials are protectable under copyright law. Books, journals, photographs, art, music, sound recordings, computer programs, websites, and many other materials are within the reach of copyright law. Also protectable are motion pictures, dance choreography, and architecture. If you can see it, read it, hear it, or watch it, chances are it is protectable by copyright law.

Works are protected automatically, without copyright notice or registration.

These many different works are protected under copyright if they are "original works of authorship" that are "fixed in any tangible medium of expression." In other words, once you create an original work, and fix it on paper, in clay, or on the drive of your computer, the work receives instant and automatic copyright protection. The law today does not require placing a notice of copyright on the work or registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. The law provides some important benefits if you do use the notice or register the work, but you are the copyright owner even without these formalities.

Copyright protection lasts for many decades.

The basic term of protection for works created today is for the life of the author, plus seventy years. In the case of "works made for hire" (explained below), the copyright lasts for the lesser of either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation of the work. The rules for works created before 1978 are altogether different, and foreign works often receive distinctive treatment. Not only is the duration of copyright long, but the rules are fantastically complicated.

Works in the public domain.

Some works lack copyright protection, and they are freely available for use without the limits and conditions of copyright law. Copyrights eventually expire, and the works enter the public domain. Works produced by the U.S. government are not copyrightable. Copyright also does not protect facts, ideas, discoveries, and methods.

The Meaning of Copyright Ownership

Owners hold specific rights but not all rights.

The law grants to owners a set of specified rights: reproduction of works; distribution of copies; making of derivative works; and the public performance and display of works. Some artworks have "moral rights" regarding the name of the artist on the work, or preventing destruction of some works. Owners may also have rights to prevent anyone from circumventing technological protection systems that control access to the works.

Author is the copyright owner.

As a general rule, the initial owner of the copyright is the person who does the creative work. If you wrote the book or took the photograph, you are the copyright owner.

Employer may be the copyright owner.

If you created the work as an employee, acting within the scope of your employment, the work may be a "work made for hire." In that event, the copyright owner is the employer. If you are an employee, and your job is to create software code, the copyright probably belongs to your employer.

Copyrights can be transferred.

The law may make you or your employer the copyright owner, but the law also allows the owner to transfer the copyright. With a written and signed instrument, your employer can give you the copyright. In the academic setting, we are frequently asked to transfer copyrights in our books and articles to publishers. The ability to transfer or retain our copyrights is an opportunity to be good stewards of our intellectual works.

Copyright owners may allow public uses.

A copyright owner may grant rights to the public to use a protected work. That grant could be a simple statement on the work explaining the allowed uses, or it may be a selection of a Creative Commons license. Similarly, the movement to make works "open access" or "open source" is a choice by the owner of rights to make works available to the public.

Fair Use and Other Rights of Use

Activities within fair use are not infringements.

Fair use is an important right to use copyrighted works at the university. Fair use can allow us to clip, quote, scan, share, and make many other common uses of protected works. But not everything is within fair use. Fair use depends on a reasoned and balanced application of four factors: the purpose of the use; the nature of the work used; the amount used; and the effect of the use on the market for the original.

Fair use is one of many statutory rights to use copyrighted works.

Fair use is now encoded in the U.S. Copyright Act, which also includes many other provisions allowing uses of works in the classroom, in libraries, and for many other purposes. These statutes, however, are highly detailed, and the right to use works is usually subject to many conditions and limitations.

Uses are also allowed with permission.

If your use of a copyrighted work is not within one of the statutory exceptions, you may need to secure permission from the copyright owner. A non-exclusive permission does not need to be in writing, but a signed writing is almost always good practice. The permission may come directly from the copyright owner, or through the Copyright Clearance Center or similar agency.

U.S. copyright law applies to domestic and foreign works.

In general, the same principles of copyright under the domestic law of the U.S. (or of another country) apply to a work, whether the work originated in the U.S. or elsewhere. Under major multinational treaties, many countries have agreed to give copyright protection to works from most other countries of the world. Because the U.S. has joined such treaties, you should apply U.S. copyright law to most works, regardless of their country of origin.

 

When making use of this page under the terms of the CC license, please include this form of attribution: "Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director."  If your needs for the material are outside the scope of the license, please consider fair use or simply askingus for permission.