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Use Copyrighted Materials in the Classroom: Copyright Basics

Use this guide for information and guidance on copyright issues.

Copyright Basics

Copyright Definition

According to the US Copyright Office, "copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression." Breaking that down further:

"Works are original when they are independently created by a human author." Independent creation means the author created it themselves, without copying.

"A work is fixed when it is a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time."

Becoming a Copyright Owner

Once you create an original work and fix it in a tangible form of expression (e.g., taking a photo, writing a book) you are the copyright owner. This happens automatically, with no action required on the part of the author. It is possible to register your works with the United States Copyright Office, but it is not necessary to do so.

If you create a work as an employee on behalf of an employer, your employer is the copyright owner. For example, if you write a report as part of your job, your employer owns the copyright for that report.

Copyright Owner Rights

Copyright owners have the legal right to:

  • Reproduce the work or create derivative works.
  • Distribute copies of work (including by selling it, such as selling copies of a novel).
  • Perform or display the work publicly.

Public Domain

Public domain refers to works that are not protected by copyright or any other intellectual property protection. Works in the public domain are owned by the general public, so the work can be used by anyone. Works can become part of the public domain in different ways, including the copyright protection expiring or the copyright owner voluntarily putting their work in the public domain.

Is it in the Public Domain?

  • works published in or before 1927; which includes 1927 as of 2023.
  • works where copyright has expired.
  • most federal documents.
  • works where owners give up their rights.
  • facts, titles, ideas, etc.
  • freeware or unlicensed software.

Source: U. S. Copyright Office

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property goes beyond the issues surrounding copyright and includes patents, trademarks, commercial designs, and trade secrets. Copyright is under the broader legal umbrella of intellectual property.

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.

Source: U. S. Copyright Office