Copyright Overview

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, US Code) to the creator of “original works of authorship”. These works include literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, and other forms of intellectual material. Copyright gives the owner, and those authorized by the owner, the right to:

  1. Reproduce the work.
  2. Prepare derivative works based on the original.
  3. Distribute copies of the work.
  4. Display or perform the work publicly.
  5. Perform the work by means of digital transmission.

General standards for copyright include:

  • For material created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright extends for the life of the owner plus seventy years.
  • For works created by two or more authors, copyright lasts for fifty years after the last surviving author’s death.
  • For works made for hire, or anonymous works, the duration of copyright will be seventy-five years from publication or one hundred years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  • Works created after January 1, 1978 are computed in a similar manner although the details are more complex. Pending legislation will likely alter copyright laws.

For more information, refer to the Library of Congress website on copyright information.

What Material is Copyrighted?

Copyright applies when material is first fixed in a tangible form. But not all material is copyrightable. Material in the public domain (not copyrightable) is freely available for use. Public domain material includes the following:

  • material that has exceeded its copyright duration.
  • material that is not copyrightable by nature (facts, ideas).
  • material produced by the federal government.

The Fair Use of Copyrighted Material

Copyright laws protect the interests of the authors of intellectual property. The authors’ interests need to be balanced against the needs of others who need access to copyrighted material for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. These competing interests are addressed in the ‘fair use’ guidelines (US Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Sec. 107) that provides for limited use of copyrighted material.

Four factors are considered in determining “fair use”:

  1. Purpose and character of the use.
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work.
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used.
  4. Impact of the use on the potential market.

While non-profit use of copyright material has historically been viewed favorably under fair use guidelines, there is a significant difference between classroom use and online applications because of the possible impact on the potential market. Showing a copyrighted image in a classroom of twenty people is very different from posting an image on a web site. Even limiting access by password protecting a site does not guarantee protection. It is important to remember that few issues related to the online usage of copyrighted works have been definitively settled by the courts. Therefore, faculty and course developers need to proceed with great caution.


The TEACH act, enacted in late 2002, expands educators rights to perform or display materials for distant students. However, the TEACH act does not allow educators to provide unlimited material to their distant students, and typically less than they do for their face-to-face classroom students. As an example, the law allows for “reasonable and limited portions” of audio and visual material to be provided to distant students, but educators may not display the same works in their entirety as they might do in their classrooms. Differences between what is permissible for distant and face-to-face classroom students and additional limits and considerations has left many educators to continue to use fair use guidelines to guide their use of copyrighted materials. For additional information on the TEACH act refer to:

How much copyrighted material may be used fairly?

The following guidelines are helpful in deciding what portion of a copyrighted work may be used:

  • Motion media: up to 10% of the total work, or 3 minutes, whichever is less.
  • Text media: up to 10% of the total work, or 1000 words, whichever is less. For short works, such as poems, an entire poem of less than 250 words may be used. 3 poems by one poet, or 5 poems by different poets from any anthology may be used. For poems greater than 250 words, 3 excerpts from any one poet or 5 excerpts from different poets from a single anthology may be used.
  • Music, Lyrics, and Music Videos: up to 10%, but no more than 30 seconds may be used. Any alterations to a musical work may not change the melody or basic character of the work.
  • Illustrations & Photographs: no more than 5 images from one artist may be incorporated into one work. When using images from a collection, no more than 15 images or 10% of the entire work may be used.
  • Numerical Data Sets: up to 10% or 2500 field cells, whichever is less from a database or data table may be used.

Media users must give credit to the media source and display copyright information when it is available. Refer to for more information about fair use guidelines.

Material available for use under fair use guidelines is not available for an indefinite period of time. Typically, educators may use copyrighted material for which they have received permission to use for a period of two years. After that, permission for each copyrighted portion must be displayed in the material. For more information refer to

When incorporating material from another website it is recommended to contact the site owner to determine how long the material will be available on the site.

Steps to Secure Permission to Use Copyrighted Material

Material found on the Internet is automatically considered copyrighted. Contact the author and/or website owner to request permission to use material. When linking to outside material, confirm the length of time the material will remain on the site.

For material from other sources (books, CDs, PowerPoint presentations, audio or video tapes, records, magazines, etc.) examine the work for copyright notice, place and date of publication, author and publisher. Contact the author and/or publisher to request permission to use the material.

If you are not certain about the ownership or have other related questions, you may wish to search the Library of Congress online or request that the Copyright Office conduct a search of its records for a fee of $65 per hour.

What to Include in Permission Request Forms

To expedite the permission-request process, the Association of American Publishers suggests that the following information be included when submitting permission to copy requests to copyright owners:

  1. Title, author and/or editor, and edition of material to be used.
  2. Exact material to be used, giving amount, page numbers, chapters and, if possible, a copy of the material.
  3. Use to be made of materials (including time period or duration).
  4. Form of distribution (classroom, online, etc.)
  5. Whether or not the material is to be sold.
  6. Type of reprint (online, photocopy).

When the copyright owner is the publisher of the work, the request should be sent, together with a self-addressed return envelope, to the permissions department of the publisher in question (e-mail is acceptable if you can find the correct address). For purposes of proof, and to define the scope of the permission, it is important that the permission be in writing (fax or e-mail are acceptable if kept in hardcopy form). Many publishers have registered with the Copyright Clearance Center, which can facilitate obtaining permission to copy.

Resources for More Information

Agencies that grant copyright permission:

Sites that offer stock material:

Other useful sites: