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Research Support: Copyright & Ethical Information Use

Copyright Basics

Copyright protects creative expression. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to set copyright terms for a limited time in order to encourage the progress of science and useful arts.
  • Many different forms and media can be copyrighted, including textual works, sound recordings, music scores, software, moving pictures, and more.
  • Ideas, facts, slogans, and useful objects cannot be copyrighted.
Under the current law, copyright occurs as soon as creative expression is fixed in tangible form.
  • There is no need to register the copyright or to provide notice (the c in the circle).
  • Nevertheless, these formalities do have some benefits. Registration is necessary before a copyright owner can litigate for copyright infringement. Providing notice lets the world know that the owner holds the copyright and will protect it.
The copyright owner has six broad rights that are sometimes called the “bundle of rights.”  These are the right:
  • Of reproduction
  • To prepare derivative works
  • Of distribution
  • Of public performance
  • Of display
  • Of performance through digital audio transmission
The copyright holder can transfer or license one or all of these rights permanently or temporarily. A license (permission to take advantage of one of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights on a temporary basis) may be exclusive or nonexclusive.
Throughout twentieth century, Congress extended the duration of copyright. When a work by an individual author is published in the U.S. today, the copyright term is 70 years plus the life of the author. For a work of corporate authorship, the copyright term is 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date when the work was created, whichever is shorter.

Fair Use

Copyright exceptions provide limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright holder in situations where it is deemed to be in society’s best interest to do so, such as for education or research, to protect certain types of users of copyrighted content, or to fulfill Constitutional requirements such as free speech. Many copyright exceptions are limited and detailed in their scope.

In contrast, fair use is a part of the copyright statute (17 USC 107) that provides a flexible approach to copyright exceptions for a wide variety of useful societal purposes. These include (but are not limited to):  criticism, comments, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.
Four factors are used to analyze whether a use is fair use:

  • The purpose and character of use, including whether the use is for commercial or noncommercial purposes;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In recent years a determination of whether a use is transformative has become an important part of many fair use analyses.  A transformative use occurs when the work is used for a “broadly beneficial purpose different from that of the original.”


For help with your copyright questions, please contact:

Brandy Bourne

Interim University Librarian