What is copyright?

Copyright provides exclusive rights to creators and authors to reproduce, publish, sell, distribute, perform, or display their original works; creators are protected under title 17 of the U.S. Code. The purpose of copyright law is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Copyright rights accrue automatically, once a copyrightable work is fixed in a tangible form. The general rule is that a work is protected by copyright for 70 years after the author’s death. Here are some questions to consider when deciding whether it is legal to use material that someone else created:

Is the work in the public domain (in other words, is it free to use)?

If the work is protected under copyright, who is the copyright owner?

Can I use this work in certain ways and under certain conditions without necessarily getting permission (fair use, TEACH Act, etc.)?

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

What is fair use?

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 certain purposes without the copyright owner’s permission. If you want to use copyrighted material, you should consider whether the use is fair by considering the four fair use factors. This is called a “fair use analysis.” All four factors must be considered, but there is no magic formula as to which factor carries the most weight because the factors are intentionally broad. Doing the analysis may lower the risks associated with copyrighted infringement, but ultimately, only a court can decide if a use is fair. In many instances, it can be important to conduct a fair use analysis before using a work that is under copyright. If the owner of a work sues you for copyright infringement, the fact that you conducted a reasonable fair use analysis could help show that you were not a “willful” infringer.

The Four Fair Use Factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use
  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

Use the UCSB Fair Use Checklist (PDF) to conduct a fair use analysis.

What is the public domain?

When a work’s copyright expires, the work becomes part of the public domain. Material in the public domain is not protected by copyright and 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. The date published, the country where the work was first 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.

What is a Creative Commons license?

Creative Commons (CC) licenses allow authors to publicly license their copyrighted works, subject to certain conditions provided in the CC license. The type of CC license chosen indicates how authors want their works to be used by others. If you write a poem, take a photograph, or record a song, you immediately and automatically own the copyright to that poem, photograph, or song. If you want to indicate how others can use your work, you can label the work with one of the handful of available Creative Commons licenses. It’s free, and easy to use. Authors can choose from several different types of CC licenses, ranging from very broad (just attribution) to more restrictive (non-commercial, no derivatives).

  • Locating materials that have a Creative Commons license
    There is CC licensed material all over the Internet, but you can start your search at the Creative Commons Search page.
    Verify that material is licensed under CC by looking for a CC symbol on the work. For example:
    CC BY symbol
  • Licensing your own content under Creative Commons
    You do not need to register your work with the Copyright Office, Creative Commons, or anywhere else to license your work via a CC license; you can simply choose a license that makes sense for your needs, and label your work with the license. Choose a license from the Creative Commons site.

What is the DMCA and how does it affect me?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides, among other things, exemptions to U.S. copyright law. These exemptions are designed to help the law adapt to current digital security technologies and allow people to use those technologies legally. The Library of Congress makes recommendations for new DMCA exemptions every three years.

For more information, see the American Library Associaton's page on the DMCA.