Understanding Copyright

Universities are one of the greatest consumers of copyrighted material as well as one of the greatest creators of copyrighted material. Many uses of copyrighted material are allowed under an exception to Copyright Law, commonly known as Fair Use, but not all uses of copyrighted material at a University are covered by Fair Use.

Copyright law protects the creator of a work and his right to profit from that work. With so much information easily accessible on the World Wide Web, it is important to understand the intricacies of the law before using someone else's material. Copyright infringement is a federal crime and you are ultimately responsible for the data you include on paper or on personal web sites.

Copyright law bestows five exclusive rights on the creator of a work: the right to reproduce, adapt, display, perform and distribute the work to the public. In short, the creator has full control over how their work is used. Works do not have to be published or registered for copyright in order to be protected. The only criteria is the work must exist in a physical form for at least some period of time and must be original.

Copyright law protects musical works (including lyrics), dramatic works (including accompanying music), choreographed works, movies, video games, paintings, novels, software code, sculptures, architectural works and more. All literature is protected under copyright law. Copyright law does not protect works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression, titles, names or slogans, or works consisting entirely of information that is common property such as calendars, rulers or lists taken from public documents. Facts are not protected by copyright law; however, the expression of those facts can be protected.

There are two situations in which works may be used without the permission of the creator: if the work is in the public domain, or if the intent lies within the realm of fair use. The public domain consists of all publications, products and processes that don't qualify for protection or have fallen out of copyright. This includes anything published prior to 1923, as well as any work explicitly offered to the public domain by the creator.

Fair use is the utilization of a portion of a copyrighted work for purposes of parody, news reporting, research and education about the work. Fair use is usually a short excerpt of the work, and credit is given to the creator. It should not harm the commercial value of the work. Works of criticism, education or scholarship often fall under the category of fair use.

Almost everything that was created after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether or not it has a copyright symbol on it. Therefore, use of any modern material should always credit the source of the information and permission needs to be obtained for use of copyrighted material unless there is an exception under Copyright law--for example the information is in the public domain. Copying text, HTML coding, or using graphics from a web site or magazine can be considered copyright infringement. Graphics provided by a free graphics site often allow you to use the images if you comply with the owner's terms and conditions. Modifying the images or the links attached to an image, is an infringement on copyright law unless permission has been granted by the owner. When in doubt, ask permission.

Since each individual is responsible for information they publish on the Internet or on paper, it is important to obtain the appropriate consent prior to publishing or reproducing someone else's work. Permission is usually very easy to obtain and can often be done through a single email. Remember, copyright infringement is a crime.