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Copyright: Overview

What is Copyright?

According to the United States Copyright Office, copyright “is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” (Copyright in General – U.S. Copyright Office)

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.” (Copyright in General – U.S. Copyright Office)


What is Public Domain?

According to the United States Copyright Office, a “work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.” (Definitions – U.S. Copyright Office)

There are 4 common ways that works arrive in the public domain: (Copyright & Fair Use – Stanford)

  1. Copyright has expired
  2. Copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  3. Copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain
  4. Copyright law does not protect this type of work.

What is Fair Use?

According to the United States Copyright Office, fair use "is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances." (More Information on Fair Use - U.S. Copyright Office)

"Fair use is a legal exemption to the exclusive rights of copyright holders. Fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis based on the following factors:" (Fair Use - Cornell University)

  1. The purpose and character of the use (including whether it is transformative, commercial, non-profit, or educational)
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion to be used
  4. The effect upon the potential market for the copyrighted work