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This guide introduces the fundamentals of copyright for the purposes of teaching, writing, and publishing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some frequently asked questions about copyright, fair use, and copyright exceptions.  Don't see an answer to your question?  Contact the library at  or for an answer.

Copyright FAQs

What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section "What Works Are Protected."

How is a copyright different from a patent or a trademark?
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

When is my work protected?
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.


Fair Use FAQs

What is fair use?

Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder for purposes such as criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and teaching. While many educational uses may be fair, you need to evaluate your use each time you are reproducing copyrighted material — to show in your class, to hand out copies, or to include in your writing.

What are the four factors?

1. Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2. Nature of the copyrighted work, such as whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, published or unpublished;
3. Amount of the work used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work.

You have to apply the four factors to each use situation. Just because your use is for non-profit educational purposes does not automatically give you permission to copy and distribute other people's work. 

What is the character of use?

  • Non commercial purpose
  • Educational purpose
  • For personal use
  • Parody
  • Used for criticism, commentary, news reporting
  • Repurposing the work, providing new context (transformative)

How much of the work is being used?

  • Small proportion of a work, such as a single chapter from a book, or one article from a journal issue
  • An appropriate amount for a transformative purpose (transform a particular work into a different state or thing)
  • Part of work being used is not the “heart of the work”

If the type of use was widespread, what effect would it have on the market for the original?

  • Use is transformative and amount used is appropriate for purposes
  • Use is not transformative, but amount used is small
  • Original is out of print
  • Copyright owner is unidentifiable



Copyright Exceptions

What works are excluded from copyright protection?

  • Facts and ideas
  • Government produced material
  • Processes, methods, systems, and procedures
  • Logos and Titles
  • Materials passed into the public domain

What's in the public domain?

Works in the public domain are:

  • published in the U.S. before 1923
  • published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1963 without copyright renewal
  • published without a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977
  • published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years