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CTS Library


1. What is copyright?

"Copyright" refers to a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of an original work to determine how and under what conditions that work may be used by another. In the United States, copyright is defined in U.S. Code Title 17.

2. What kinds of works are covered by U.S. copyright law?

Copyright generally applies to the following kinds of original works:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

3. What is not covered by U.S. copyright law?

Copyright does not apply, however, to the following information that may be included in works that are otherwise copyrighted:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries;
  • Works that are not in a fixed and tangible form (i.e. a choreographic work that has not been recorded, or an improvised speech that has not been written down);
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans;
  • Familiar symbols or designs;
  • Variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; and,
  • Listing of ingredients or contents

For more information, see Circular 33, "Works Not Protected by Copyright" from the U.S. Copyright Office.

4. What exclusive rights does U.S. copyright law grant?

U.S. Code Title 17 § 106 grants to the creator of an original work the following exclusive rights:

  • to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public for sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and,
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Creators also have the exclusive right to have their original works attributed to them, and are protected against having works attributed to them that they did not create. Creators are protected against having versions of their work attributed to them that have been distorted, mutilated, or modified in ways that damage their honor or reputation. See U.S. Title 17 § 106A.

5. What is "fair use" according to U.S. copyright law?

United States copyright law places certain limitations on a creators exclusive rights to an original work. Those limitations are defined in U.S. Code Title 17 § 107 through § 118.

One of the more important limitations is known as "fair use." U.S. Code Title 17 § 107 allows for the use of copyrighted works for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Determining what is fair use takes into consideration the following factors:

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

The U.S. Copyright Office's publication "More Information on Fair Use" offers additional clarification about these considerations.

The ALA also maintains helpful information on copyright and fair use in its LibGuide, "Fair Use for Libraries."

6. How can I determine what counts as "fair use" and avoid copyright infringement?

Because fair use considerations are sometimes difficult to apply in specific circumstances, the American Library Association has developed a Fair Use Evaluator to provide additional guidance. A similar tools are Columba University's Fair Use Checklist. But it is important to remember that such tools cannot provide flawless guidance in determining what is fair use. If doubts linger, it is best to consult with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law.

7. What is the "public domain"?

The public domain consists of works to which no exclusive creator rights apply because those rights have expired, been forfeited, been waived by the creator, or are otherwise inapplicable.

In the United States, all works created prior to 1925 are automatically included in the public domain. Works created in 1924 and thereafter may be in the public domain if they meet certain criteria. Special conditions apply to works created by U.S. citizens while living abroad, sound recordings, and architectural works. Those criteria are helpfully summarized in a chart entitled Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States at Cornell University.

8. How can I determine whether a work is in the public domain or remains subject to copyright restrictions?

The American Library Association maintains a tool commonly known as the Digital Copyright Slider that can provide some guidance. If doubts persist, it may be necessary to conduct a search of the Public Catalog at the U.S. Copyright Office or employ a professional agency such as the Copyright Clearance Center to investigate the status of the work. The U.S. Copyright Office has provided Circular 22, "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work" to provide assistance.


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