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Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright

What is copyright:

Copyright is rights given to a copyright owner or holder (an author, a filmmaker, a musician, or even a publisher) for an original and creative work fixed in a tangible medium of expression (an article, a book, a movie, a recording, a website, and more).

What are these “exclusive rights” under U.S. Copyright Law?

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of copyright to do and authorize the following:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare works based upon the original (also known as derivative works)
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public (by sale or other transfer of ownership; by rental, lease, or lending)
  • Perform the work publicly (if it’s a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographed works, or if it’s a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works–including images from a motion picture or other audiovisual works)
  • Display the work publicly (if it’s a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographed works, or if it’s a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works–including images from a motion picture or other audiovisual works)
  • Perform the work publicly or through digital audio transmission (if it’s a sound recording)

What does copyright protect?

Copyrights protects “An original and creative work fixed in a tangible medium of expression”. Any work that is tangible can be protected and allows various tangible formats this protection. It is broad and touches multiple disciplines.  According to the U.S. Copyright Office’s helpful publication, Copyright Basics (Circular 1), these are some of the types of works that can be protected under U.S. Copyright Law:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works (such as dances)
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (such as paintings, designs, photographs, and images)
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works (including TV shows, commercials, and others)
  • Sound recordings (whether in a physical format, such as a CD, or in digital format, such as an iTunes file)
  • Architectural works

What is not protected by copyright?

According to US Copyright Title 17:

  • Works that “have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression”–such as choreographic (dance) works that have not been notated or recorded or “in the moment” (improvisational) speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; simple variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; simple listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices. However, a description, explanation, or illustration may be protected by copyright.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources). These works are considered neither original nor creative.


Are images protected under copyright law?

Yes. The U.S. Copyright Office states that

Copyright protects ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device. (Copyright Basics [Circular 1])

“Original works of authorship” include “tangible forms of expression” such as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” In simpler words, copyright covers any and all images in any format, including digital images.

 What is “fair use” and its four factors?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office’s, the rights of copyright owners are subject to limitations. These limitations are outlined in Sections 107 through 118 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law provides four factors to consider when considering whether the use of copyrighted works is fair use.

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work (e.g., whether it is factual or creative in nature)
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Although the purposes listed above include "multiple copies for classroom use," photocopying a textbook rather than asking students to purchase the book would most likely be found an infringement of copyright. Photocopying an article for class discovered the night before a pertinent lecture would more likely be considered fair use. For further discussion of fair use see U. S. Copyright Office Fact Sheet FL 102.

Are there any resources to provide a guide available to help me decide fair use of a copyrighted work?

What is the “public domain”?

The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. 

Am I allowed to use work in my classroom?

US copyright law allows teachers and students to make certain uses of copyrighted works in face-to-face teaching. As a teacher or student, you are allowed to perform or display a copyrighted work without permission in “a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” during face-to-face teaching at a nonprofit educational institution.

If the work is a motion picture or other audiovisual work, you must use a copy of the work that was lawfully made.

Using Copyright works in your teaching