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Understanding Copyright


Any works found on the Internet are in the public domain.


Works on the Internet are subject to copyright protection. The exception is government publications.

Understanding Copyright provides a brief overview of copyright including works covered under copyright and works that are exempt from copyright.


“Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.”
—U.S. Copyright Office Copyright Basics

Copyright is one of the areas of federal law that most directly affects the educational mission of the university. Faculty and students stand on both sides of the copyright equation. On the one hand, they create copyrighted works, e.g., papers, articles, software, and musical compositions, and they need to manage those rights properly. They need to know how to make those works available to the public, while ensuring that they retain the rights they need to engage in future activities. On the other hand, faculty and students use copyrighted works created by others, and they need to make sure that their uses do not infringe copyright. Because faculty and students stand on both sides of this complex equation, understanding of the fundamental principles of copyright law is recommended. The following is a basic overview of a complex area of the law.

Copyright law gives an author of a work a bundle of exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following with the work:

  • To reproduce the work
  • To prepare derivative works based on the work
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public
  • To perform the work publicly
  • To display the work publicly

These rights, however, are not unlimited. The law establishes certain exceptions from copyright liability. If the work enjoys copyright protection and there are no exceptions available, permission must be obtained from the owner to use the work. Using a copyrighted work without permission may constitute copyright infringement, subjecting the user to significant civil and even criminal penalties.


Works Covered Under Copyright


I can use an image from a work for my dissertation.


Permission from the copyright holder should be obtained before using an image in another work.

Copyright protection covers both published and unpublished works in the following categories:

  • Literary works (including computer programs and databases)
  • Musical works, including any 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
  • Architectural works


Works Not Covered Under Copyright

Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include:

  • Facts
  • Ideas, methods, or systems
  • U.S. government works
  • Principles, concepts, procedures or processes
  • Blank forms
  • Computing and measuring devices
  • Listings of ingredients in formulas, recipes, compounds, and prescriptions
  • Names, titles or short phrases
  • Public domain works
  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)

Further Resources:


When Does Copyright Take Effect?

Copyright is automatically vested the moment a work is fixed in any tangible medium.


Copyright Registration


If it doesn’t have a copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted.


Works created in the U.S. after April 1, 1989 do not require a copyright notice.

It is not necessary to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office in order for a work to be protected under copyright law. However, registration does afford certain advantages in the event that the copyright of a work is challenged in court.

Further Resources:


Copyright Notices

It is no longer necessary to include a copyright notice on a work. The work is still considered to be protected by copyright even if it does not have a notice. However, if you are distributing your works to the public, you may wish to include a notice to prevent others from incorrectly thinking that the work is not subject to copyright.

Copyright notices should contain three items:

  1. The word “copyright,” or the symbol © or the abbreviation “Copr.” with the year of first publication.
  2. The year of first publication.
  3. The owner of the copyright.

Further Resources:


Length of Copyright Term

ALA Digital Slide Rule

ALA Digital Slide Rule

Length of copyright term for a work varies and is contingent upon when the work was created, and whether and where it was published. Currently, the basic term of protection is life of the author plus 70 years. If a work is no longer protected by copyright, it is considered to be in the public domain. All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.


Ownership of Copyright

Copyright can be transferred or licensed for use by others. Copyright can also be inherited by family members upon the death of a copyright holder. Copyright holders can retain some rights and transfer or license other rights. For example, an author of a scholarly works can transfer the copyright to a publisher, but retain some rights to allow for re-use of the work in the future.


Exceptions and Limitation

As noted above, there are a number of exceptions to copyright. The most frequently applied exceptions are for teaching and scholarly use as covered in the following sections.

Fair Use – Section 107

Bound By Law

“Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law?” from the Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Fair Use Evaluator

Fair Use Evaluator helps users collect, organize, and document the information they may need to support a fair use claim and provides a time-stamped PDF document for the users' records

Section 108 Spinner Tool

Section 108 “Spinner” Tool

Section 107 governing fair use is probably the most commonly-used exception to copyright. The copyright law contains a non-exclusive list of purposes for which the use of a copyrighted work would be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research.¬†Determining whether a proposed use is fair is case specific, and requires consideration of these four 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.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Further Resources:

Special Rules for Libraries and Archives – Section 108

Section 108 of the copyright law provides libraries special privileges for uses related to preservation and for lost, stolen, damaged, or deteriorating works; copies for library patrons; and copies for other libraries through interlibrary loan.

Classroom Use – Section 110(1)

Section 110(1) permits the performance or display of a work by instructors or students in the course of face-to-face teaching activities in a classroom. This, for example, allows a professor to show a film in class. This provision does not apply to uses in distance education, which must be assessed under section 107 (fair use) or a narrower, more complex provision of section 110.

This Exceptions for Instructors eTool guides users through the educational exceptions in U.S. copyright law:

exceptions for instructors


Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism


I can use any content from an email someone sent to me.


Copyright of the content belongs to the sender and you should obtain permission from the sender before publishing the content.

Plagiarism is the act of taking ideas or expression (including paraphrasing) from another source without proper attribution. Copyright infringement is violating an exclusive right without authority of the copyright holder or the law (i.e., an exception like fair use). While the two often overlap, they are different concepts, and can involve different situations. Moreover, the penalties for plagiarism and copyright infringement differ. Copyright infringement is a civil, and in some cases, a criminal matter, whereas plagiarism is enforced by institutional code and is considered unethical.


Example of plagiarism without copyright infringement:
Example of copyright infringement without plagiarism:
Example of copyright infringement and plagiarism:

Copying a paragraph from an 1835 book in an article without attribution.

Copying a 2001 journal article with full attribution on a web site without securing permission from the copyright owner.

Copying several pages of an article in a dissertation without attribution.


Have questions about copyright? We can help you.
Contact your copyright liaison:
Becker Library: Cathy Sarli | Washington University Libraries: WULIB_CopyrightHelp@wumail.wustl.edu

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