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Introduction to Copyright

Copyright provides the creators of original works of authorship with a limited set of exclusive rights to copy, distribute, and perform their works. The law attempts to balance the private interests of copyright owners with the public interest and is intended, in the words of the Constitution:

"...to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8)

The Copyright Act, comprehensively revised by Congress in 1976, gives authors (including artists, composers and other creators of intellectual works) the right to control, within certain limits, how their works are published, distributed, and sold, and the right to be paid for the use of their work. Many of the law’s provisions are limited in certain circumstances and the educational setting is one of the most complex and subject to broad interpretation. Technological advances provide many opportunities to create, distribute, and control copyrighted works, and they develop faster than changes in the law and policy. Taking advantage of these opportunities can place at odds the scholarly and education communities with commercial entities.

The following information highlights important provisions of the law:

Exclusive Rights of Copyright Owners

Section 106 of the Copyright Act gives the copyright owner the right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or sound recordings of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

In addition, certain authors of works of visual art have the rights of attribution and integrity.

Types of Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright protects "original works of authorship" that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device. Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most "compilations" may be registered as "literary works"; maps and architectural plans may be registered as "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works." See "Copyright Basics" from the U.S. Copyright Office for further information.

Works Not Protected by Copyright

Some works are not subject to copyright law. None of the following is subject to copyright protection:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (e.g., choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded);
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents;
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration;
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (e.g., standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources); and
  • Works created by the U.S. federal government.

Exceptions and Limitations

While the copyright owner has exclusive rights, these rights are not unlimited. These exceptions are set out in the Copyright Act. The following exceptions generally apply to the education community. These include:

  • Section 107 Fair Use – This is the most general of the limitations on the rights of copyright owners. It attempts to balance the needs of teachers and researchers with those of copyright owners. The fair use doctrine allows for certain uses of copyrighted works, without permission or payment, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including, in some instances, multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.

    Fair use is a "rule of reason," and because there is no universally adopted definition of fair use, the interpretation of how much use constitutes fair use is a matter of much debate. Congress provides four factors to consider in determining whether a particular instance might be considered fair use. The four factors for consideration are:
    • the purpose and character of the use (e.g., commercial vs. nonprofit educational);
    • the nature of the copyrighted work (e.g., workbook exercises vs. works of imagination);
    • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
    • the effect of the use upon the market for or value of the copyrighted work.
  • Section 108 Library Exception – This exception ensures that libraries serving the scholarly and research communities will have access to copyrighted works for their non-commercial activities.
  • Section 109 Right of First Sale – This exception makes it possible for people to redistribute their purchased copy of a copyrighted work by resale, lending, or donation, and it is the exception that provides libraries with the ability to lend materials in their collections to their users.
  • Section 110 (2) TEACH Act – The Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act is an important revision to section 110 of the Copyright Act that ensures that new technology-based education (e.g., distance education via electronic networks) may apply the principles and provisions of fair use in the curriculum.

Protecting Your Own Work

Under the Copyright Act, a work of authorship is protected from the moment of creation. It does not have to be published, and it does not need a copyright notice. As a user of information, this means that except for very old works and U.S. government publications, you must presume that every creative work is protected by copyright. On the other hand, as a writer or creator of new works, it means that your writings are protected as soon as you click on "save" or "send" or lift your pen from the paper.

Length of Copyright Term and the Public Domain

Copyright protection expires after a length of time legislated by Congress. Once a work falls into this category it is considered to be in the public domain, which means that no permission is needed from the owner to use the work. Copyright duration is complicated. In general, published works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. In the case of joint authorship, copyright protection is in place for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. Unpublished works and works created before January 1, 1978 present a variety of conditions that must be met to qualify for copyright protection. Cornell University has created a comprehensive, up-to-date table detailing copyright duration and the public domain.

Additional Resources