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Copyright & Fair Use: Copyright Law

Information resources on copyright law and fair use guidelines for the MSUB community.

Copyright Law

Copyright Defined

Copyright law protects "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" for a limited period (17 U.S.C. §102). Copyright protection includes, for instance, the legally secured right to publish and sell the substance and form of a literary, artistic, or musical work, and copyright protects authors, publishers and producers, and the public. The Copyright Law of the United States is contained in Title 17 of the United States Code (17 U.S.C.). Copyright applies both to traditional media (books, records, etc.) and to digital media (electronic journals, Web sites, etc.). Copyright protects the following eight categories of works (17 U.S.C. §102):

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works

Furthermore, a copyright holder has six exclusive rights over his or her work (17 U.S.C. §106):

  1. Distribution
  2. Reproduction
  3. Modification
  4. Public performance
  5. Public display
  6. Digitally perform sound recordings

Copyright: What It Is NOT

Facts, ideas, and/or underlying themes cannot be copyrighted. Additionally, copyright cannot be held in perpetuity. The United States Constitution (U.S. Const. Art. I, §8) states that "The Congress shall have Power ... to protect 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."

Public Domain

A work enters the public domain when its copyright has expired. Public domain also includes most materials produced by the federal government (17 U.S.C. §105) . Keep in mind that, since 1989, no copyright notice is required. Works are automatically copyrighted. Peter Hirtle of Cornell University has created the following useful chart which details the length of copyright:

Limitations of Copyright

The law provides several limitations on the copyright holder's six exclusive rights. The various limitations are included in 17 U.S.C. §§107-119. For educational purposes, three of these sections are most pertinent:

Section 107: Fair Use

Fair use provisions of the US Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. §107) allow for limited distribution of published works without the author's permission. The following four factors are used to determine if a use is fair:

  1. The purpose and nature of the use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The nature and substantiality of the material used
  4. The effect of use on the potential market for or value of the work

The University of Minnesota Libraries has developed a useful "Thinking Through Fair Use" webpage that guides users through the process of determining if a use is fair.

Public Domain & U.S. Copyright

Works that are considered in the public domain are not protected under copyright laws so it is not necessary to obtain permission from the creator. These items may be used freely.

View this chart by the Cornell Copyright Information Center for more information about when works enter the public domain.

Government Documents

The majority of government documents are in the Public Domain and may be freely reproduced or used. This includes maps produced by departments such as the U.S.G.S, U.S.D.A., N.O.S., and the Census Bureau.

Other Open Resources