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Copyright and Fair Use

Copyright and fair use are very complicated issues with more areas of grey than black & white. This library guide will help answer some basic questions you may have about working with copyrighted print and electronic materials.

Copyright FAQ

The following Frequently Asked Questions were derived from the U.S. Copyright Office. (Note that documents produced by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of his or her official duties are not protected by copyright, nor are documents produced by the units of the government. Therefore, all publications of the U.S. Government can be reproduced or displayed without restriction.)

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. (The patent and trademark systems exist to provide protections in those realms.)

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.

How do I know if a work is copyrighted?

Most copyrighted materials will not contain an explicit copyright disclosure or symbol. In general, copyright protects original creative works from the moment they are "fixed in a tangible form," i.e. when they're printed or recorded, whether the work is published or unpublished. Work published online--even when it's accessible for free--is typically protected by copyright law unless the author has offered express permission for the work to be copied or shared.

Copyright does not protect ideas until they take a fixed form, and it does not pertain to facts or data.