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Copyright Basics

Information and educational tools on this website are offered to assist faculty, staff, and students of the University in making good decisions about the appropriate use of copyrighted materials.

What is Copyright?

The Copyright Law (Title 17 of the US Code) exists to grant certain rights to content creators. It allows them the control over copies, derivative works, public display, public performance, and transmission of their works. Copyright law attempts to balance the need to establish incentive for content creators to profit from their work, and thus have incentive to continue to create, with the additional need for society to have some rights to these works such as the right to criticize, parody, and use for education.  Although we do, as educators, have specific exceptions granted to us through this law, we still have obligations to meet so that we ensure that the rights of those who created the content are protected.

What is covered by copyright?

Copyright covers any "original work" put in a tangible medium. This includes digital works (webpages, graphics, email, etc.), photographs, and computer software. It does not cover works of expression that are not in a tangible form (i.e. ideas, names, titles, concepts, or improvised performances that aren't recorded) and works in the public domain.

Making Copyright Decisions

How should I approach copyrighted works?

To find out what you need to do to make good decisions about copyright, ask yourself these five questions:

1.      Is the work covered by copyright? 

Ideas, facts, processes, and concepts cannot be copyrighted.  Works must meet a minimal level of originality to be able to be copyrighted.  Many works are in the public domain, which means they are free to be used by all.  Find out more about the public domain and what can and cannot be copyrighted here.

2.        Is it already my right to use this work?

Could the use be covered under a special exception written into the copyright law by congress to help support teaching and scholarship, or a useful supreme court case?

3.        Is the work covered by a license that would allow you to use it? 

Find out more about the creative commons, databases the library purchases for your use, as well as your obligations to uphold licenses here.

4.        Could the use be a Fair Use? 

Find out more about this important doctrine written into the copyright law to allow society certain rights to use copyrighted materials.

5.        How can you obtain permission? 

If all else fails, it can’t hurt to ask.  Find more information about seeking permission to use copyrighted material here.


All information provided is intended as educational and is not legal advice.

Head, Circulation Department

Tucker Taylor's picture
Tucker Taylor
Circulation Department
Thomas Cooper Library