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Copyright and Fair Use in the Libraries

Copyright FAQs

  • What is copyright?
    • Copyright is a U.S. law (Title XVII) that protects the original works or intellectual property, of an author or group of authors. For a work to be protected, it must first be an original work of authorship and fixed in a tangible medium of expression such as a book, audio/visual recording, or code. 
  • What rights does copyright provide?
    • Title XVII allows copyright holders exclusive rights to:
      • Reproduce or copy the work
      • Create derivitive works
      • Distribute copies to the public by sale or transfer of ownership through rental, lease, or loan (think interlibrary loan!)
      • Display or perform the work publicly 
  • How long does copyright last?
    • Individual: Life of the author plus 70 years
    • Corporations (U.S.): 120 years from date of creation
    • Outside U.S.: Public domain if published before 1923
  • Who owns the copyright?
    • The creator of the work unless there is an agreement to change ownership
  • Do I have to register a copyright?
    • No, you have rights by virtue of creation.
    • Must be registered to sue for infrigement.
Copyright Resources

Fair Use

Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law provides four factors to determine whether the use of copyrighted work is a fair one:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work (e.g., whether it is factual or creative in nature)
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

For help in making a fair use evaluation, please see  the Fair Use Evaluator.

The difference between “fair use” and “infringement” of a copyright-protected work is not easy to determine. The burden of establishing a “fair use” is on the user and requires a very circumstance-specific analysis of the intended use or reuse of a work. Here are three examples that illustrate this challenge:

 Weight of Evidence Favors Fair Use

Gray Area – Opinions May Vary

Weight of Evidence Does Not Favor Fair Use

Scanning three pages of a 120 page book and posting it to Blackboard
for one semester.

Scanning seven pages of a 120 page book and posting it to Blackboard for
one semester.

Scanning an entire book and posting
it to Blackboard.

If the scanned pages are not the “core” of the work in question, a favorable argument for “fair use” exists.

The amount exceeds established standards for acceptable amounts by one page (i.e. greater than 5%). However, courts are not bound by established standards and the Copyright Act contains no such standards. Opinions will vary.

Scanning an entire book clearly
weighs against a finding of “fair use” as the entire work is used.


Fair Use Resources

Public Domain

The term “public domain” encompasses those materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. No individual owns these works; rather, they are owned by the public. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission and without citing the original author, but no one can ever own it. 

How do works arrive in the Public Domain?

There are five common ways that an item will arrive in the Public Domain. 

The copyright has expired

Copyright has expired for all works made in the United States prior to 1926. If the publication date is before January 1, 1926, then the work is in the Public Domain.

For works published after 1977, copyright will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies. 

The Copyright failed to affix the required notice.

Works published in the United States before 1978 immediately entered the public domain if they were generally published without a proper copyright notice. Which required the copyright symbol © (for phonorecords, the symbol ℗) word copyright of the abbreviation copr. along with the name of the holder and the date of first publication.  © 1959 John Doe.

Between 1979 and 1989 works published in the United States would entered the public domain if a registration was made within 5 years of initial publication with the Copyright Office and reasonable effort was made to correct the omission on all copies distributed in the U.S. after the omission is discovered.

The copyright owner failed to follow renewal rules.

Works published in the United States before 1964 fall into the public domain if copyright was not renewed with the Copyright Office during the 28th year after publication. No renewal meant a loss of copyright. 

For works published between 1925 and 1964, research with the Copyright Office is needed to know whether the item is in the Public Domain. For a helpful guide to researching Copyright Office records, please see this guide from Stanford University Libraries

The copyright owner deliberately places the item in the Public Domain.

Sometimes, a copyright owner will choose to release their work to the Public Domain. They can do this via a CC-0 license or by placing a statement such as "This work is dedicated to the Public Domain" on their work. 

It is important to verify that the person dedicating the work to the Public Domain is, in fact, the owner of the copyright for the work. 

Copyright law does not protect this kind of work

Copyright law does not protect the titles of books or movies, nor does it protect short phrases such as, “Beam me up.”

Copyright protection also doesn’t cover facts, ideas, or theories, which has important ramifications for the collection of data. While the facts of data are not subject to copyright, their organization may be. For help with questions surrounding copyright and data, contact Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing.   


(Information for this section was gleaned from "Welcome to the Public Domain" from the Stanford University Libraries.)

Creative Commons Licenses

With a Creative Commons license you keep your copyright, but communicate to others how they can use your work.

This Creative Commons license generator will help you choose what Creative Commons license you need.