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Course & Subject Guides

Copyright Basics

This guide will give you an overview of copyright in the United States. It will not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of the Office of University Counsel.

The Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing can assist you with questions like:

  • How do I request permission to re-use a figure or table in a new paper?
  • How does signing a publishing agreement effect my copyrights?
  • What is the public domain?
  • What is Fair Use?
  • Is my use a Fair Use?

If you ask us to help you with copyright and the library staff seems aloof, it's not because we don't want to help you.

The truth is that copyright is complex and involves legal documents, and librarians must be very careful to not provide legal advice because we are not lawyers. When it comes to copyright, we can help you understand options available to you and direct you to information resources.  But when it's time to interpret legal copyright status and situations, we'll leave that to you or your attorney.

If you have a question about the limitations of library information service, please feel free to ask.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a law. The Copyright Act of 1976 (as amended) -- also know as Title 17 of the U.S. Code -- grants to authors and creators of their works exclusive rights for using those works for a limited period of time. These protective rights are intended to encourage authors to create new works.

The law gives the creator the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in parts;
  • make other derivative works based on the original;
  • distribute the works by giving, lending, or selling it;
  • perform the work;
  • display the work;
  • for sound recordings, exclusively perform the work publicly via digital transmission. 

Who owns Copyright?

The author or creator of the work is normally the initial copyright holder. If the work is created as part of a person's employment, or as a specifically contracted work, it may be a "work made for hire," meaning that the employer is the copyright holder. In the university setting, faculty and student writings and other "traditional works of scholarship"  are typically not considered to be works made for hire.

If two or more people together create a work together, they are joint holders of the copyright. Joint owners each have an equal right to exercise and enforce the copyright.

Copyright can be transferred from the original author to another person or entity through a signed, written agreement. Publishing agreements often involve a transfer of copyright, where the publisher becomes the rights holder, rather than the author. The Copyright and Intellectual Property Toolkit: Managing Copyrights and Negotiating Agreements has more information on how signing a publishing agreement affects your rights as an author as well as information about how you can retain rights in your works.