Copyright Basics

Copyright Law

Copyright is the exclusive right of creators and authors to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute original works; creators are protected under title 17 of the U.S. Code. Copyright happens automatically, once something is fixed in a tangible form. The purpose of copyright law is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. The general rule is that a work is protected by copyright for 70 years after the author’s death. However, there are various issues and exemptions to consider. For instance:

  • Is the work protected under copyright, and who is the copyright owner?

  • Is the work in the public domain (out of copyright or not owned by anyone)?

  • Can you use the work in certain ways and under certain conditions (fair use, Teach Act, etc.)?

For an interesting history of copyright law, read the Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States.

The Fair Use Exemption

Fair use (Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act) is an exemption in copyright law that allows people to use works protected by copyright in a limited way and for a transformative purpose without the copyright owner’s permission. If you want to apply fair use to a specific use of copyrighted material, it is up to you, the user, to determine whether the use is fair by considering the four fair use factors. This is called a “fair use analysis.” Use the Fair Use Checklist to conduct a fair use analysis.

In a fair use analysis, all four factors must be considered, but there is no magic formula. Doing the analysis lowers the risk of using a copyrighted work, but ultimately, only a court can decide if a use is fair. It is very important to conduct a fair use analysis before using a work that is under copyright. If the owner of a work sued you for copyright infringement, you would need to be able to prove to him or her that you conducted a fair use analysis in good faith. The four factors are:

1) The purpose and character of the use; is it transformative

2) The nature of the copyrighted work

3) The amount and substantiality of the portion taken

4) The effect of the use on the potential market for, or the value of the copyrighted work

Material in the Public Domain

Material in the public domain belongs to everyone. No one can claim ownership of public domain works. If a work is in the public domain, anyone can use it without obtaining permission. Materials in the public domain are not protected under copyright. Publication type, date published, and the date of the author’s death are some of the factors that determine whether a work is in the public domain. Copyright terms differ from country to country. For more details on U.S. copyright terms, see: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Creative Commons Licences

Creative Commons (or CC) licenses allow authors to indicate how they want their works to be used by others. For example, if you write a poem, take a photograph, or record a song, you immediately and automatically own the copyright over that poem, photograph, or song. If you want to indicate how others can use your work, you can label the work with a Creative Commons license. It’s free, and easy to use. Authors can choose from several different types of CC licenses, ranging from very loose (just attribution) to more restrictive (non-commercial, no derivatives).

Locating materials that have a CC license:

There is CC licensed material all over the Internet, but you can start here: To verify that a work has a CC license, look for a CC label:

Applying a CC license to you own work:

Choose and apply a license here:


UC Copyright Policies

UC policies and resources are online at Copyright. There is information about works created at UC, student work, using copyrighted material in teaching and more. Generally, UC states, "To fulfill its teaching, research and public service mission, it is the policy of the University of California to encourage the broad dissemination and use of information in accordance with copyright and within the scope of their employment." (Accessed August 13, 2016)

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

The DMCA is a list of exemptions to Copyright Law; these exemptions are designed to help the law adapt to current digital technologies and allow people to use those technologies legally. The list grows all the time: the Library of Congress makes recommendations for new DMCA exemptions to the U.S. Legislature every three years. Read more abou the DMCA at