Innovation and Inspiration: The Campaign for Kansas University

Copyright, Fair Use, and More

An introduction to copyright and fair use.

Subject Guide

Rebel Cummings-Sauls

Research Toolbox

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Introduction to Copyright

Copyright Basics

Five Facts About U.S. Copyright Law 

The video (below) will give you a basic understanding of U.S. Copyright Law before you dig into more details on this page. 

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors and other creators to control their original, creative work.  The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape.  Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work.  In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part;

  • Prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements;

  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan;

  • Publicly perform the work;

  • Publicly display the work.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works. 

  • Original: A work must be created independently and not copied.

  • Creative: There must be some minimal degree of creativity involved in making the work.

  • A work of authorship: This includes literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works.

  • Fixed: The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape.

How do works become copyrighted?

Copyright occurs automatically the moment a creative work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that almost everything is copyrighted, including your e-mail and letters, assignments, drafts, and photographs.

Formal procedures such as copyright notice, registration, or publication are not required to obtain copyright. Include the copyright notice and your contact information so people can contact you for permission to reuse your work. A good copyright notice might look like:

"© 2008 J. Doe. For permissions and questions, contact j.doe@jdoe.com."

Is copyright forever?

For works created since March 1, 1989, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 120 years from the date of creation or 95 years after the date of publication.  Works created before this date can have various copyright protection. The Digital Copyright Slider can be used to help define how long the protection of an item may last.

Who owns a copyrighted work?

The creator is usually the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. Note that this may differ from common academic conduct and expectations, where the lead author may be considered more important than the others.

If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work made for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. 

In the case of work by independent contractors or freelancers, the copyright belongs to the contractor or freelancer unless otherwise negotiated beforehand, and agreed to in writing.

It is possible to transfer a copyright; this frequently happens as a part of publishing agreements. In many cases, the publisher holds the copyright to a work, and not the author. A valid copyright transfer requires a signed written agreement.

More information from the U.S. Copyright Office