Copyright Basics

A copyright is a form of legal protection provided by the U.S. Government to anyone who creates an original artistic, dramatic, literary, or musical work in a “fixed” medium. Examples of materials that you can copyright include articles, books, webpages and webpage graphics, software, e-mail, photographs, dramatic presentations, lyrics, and movies. Copyright grants the creator the right to reproduce the work, prepare derivatives of it, and to lend, rent, lease, or sell copies of the work to others. If the work was created on or after January 1, 1978, the rights of copyright automatic at the time the work is created. The work doesn’t have to be published in order for it to be protected. Copyrights do have a finite lifetime and are normally valid seventy years beyond the life of the author.

Copyright doesn’t protect the ideas, the intellectual content of a copyrighted work. That protection is afforded by patents. It doesn’t protect names, familiar symbols, “works for hire,” or anything that is viewed as common property. Works for hire are materials created by employees as part of the normal scope of their employment. If you create something as a work for hire then normally your employer becomes the “author” of the work created. The life of a copyright from a work for hire is different from that of the normal copyright and last 95 years from publication/presentation of the work or 120 years from its creation, whichever period is shorter.

It is useful to know that you can’t always identify copyrighted materials as no notice is currently required by U.S. law. So don’t assume that you can freely copy something simply because it doesn’t contain a copyright notice. Only materials copyrighted on or before March 1, 1989 must be marked with a copyright notice. The format is easy to recognize. It begins with the copyright symbol “©,” the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.,” followed by the year of first publication and the name of the copyright holder. For example: “© 2005 Ay Dot Student”

Although not required by law, it may be useful to register your copyright with the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office. Registration is particularly important if you feel it is likely that someone may attempt to infringe on your copyright. Registration serves as a public record of your copyright and is required if you wish to file an infringement suit in a U.S. court. The website for the U.S. Copyright Office provides more detailed information regarding registration, its benefits, and the registration process.

If you want to use copyrighted materials, it is important to obtain written permission from the copyright holder first. If you do obtain permission, the copyright holder has the right to charge you a fee. In addition, if you make use of copyrighted written materials, you will also be required to credit the source. For example, if you obtain permission from the American Chemical Society (ACS) to make copies of an ACS technical article for distribution in a classroom, you will be asked to mark each copy with the statement “Reprinted with permission from … Copyright [Year] American Chemical Society.” Permission is also usually granted to make the requisite number of photocopies for a finite period of time that you must specify at the time that you originally contact the copyright holder with your request.

If you wish to make use of very limited pieces of a copyrighted work such as quotes, you may be able to use these under the doctrine of so-called “fair use.” Under the concept of “fair use” you are permitted to make one photocopy of any article for your private, scholarly use. Unfortunately there aren’t any hard and fast rules regarding how much of a copyrighted work one can use under “fair use” before the action becomes one of copyright infringement. Therefore, it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek permission first from the copyright holder before you make use of someone else’s copyrighted work.


United States Copyright Office. Avail. URL:
The U.S. Copyright Office has a nice article that introduce the fundamental issues surrounding copyrights:
“Copyright Basics” (U.S. Copyright Office) Avail. URL:

The American Chemical Society has produced several excellent resources on copyrights which are available at URL:
These include html materials suitable for classroom use on copyrights:

Several Universities have created and manage excellent websites to assist their faculty and students involved in scholarly publishing. These include:
“University of Michigan Copyright Website.” Avail. URL:

Fair Use

The Indiana University Purdue University Indiannapolis has created a printable checklist entitled “Checklist for Fair Use” that is useful in determining whether or not a specific situation represents an example of fair use or not available at URL:

Copyright Issues and the Internet

NC State University has created an excellent resource focused on copyright issues as they pertain to the internet and the 2002 Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act). “The TEACH Toolkit: An Online Resource for Understanding Copyright and Distance Education.” Avail. URL: