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Copyright FAQ

  • What is copyright?
    Copyright is essentially a law intended to protect intellectual property. Copyright law applies to all original, creative works—both published and unpublished—giving the creator or owner the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute copies of, perform, and/or display a copyrighted work.
  • How do I know if something is copyrighted?
    Generally, it should be assumed that any creative work is copyrighted unless it is known that a work is in the public domain or has a Creative Commons license—these two issues are explained below.
  • What is the public domain?
    When works are no longer protected by intellectual property laws, they become available for public use--this means that anyone may use these works without permission.
    • Generally, the vast majority of works published before 1923 fall within the public domain. It’s possible that works published later than this date may be in the public domain as well, but it should be assumed that they are copyrighted unless they are clearly labeled or known to be otherwise.
  • What is Creative Commons?

    Creative Commons licenses are an alternative to traditional intellectual property laws, allowing creators of works to make those works available to others for legal use and sharing.

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  • What is fair use?

    In US copyright law, fair use permits limited use of a copyrighted item without getting permission from the person who owns the copyright.

    Fair use limits the exclusive rights of copyright owners by allowing for public criticism, commentary, teaching, research, and parody of copyrighted works.

  • How do I know if my use of a copyrighted work qualifies as a fair use?
    There are four factors used to determine if the use of a copyrighted work is a fair use. The criteria for these factors are often very general and subjective, but each should be considered in determining fair use. The four factors are…
    • Purpose and character of use
      • The use of a copyrighted work should be “transformative,” meaning that new expression or meaning has been added by the use.
      • Educational, non-profit uses are typically viewed as more legitimate than non-educational, for-profit uses.
    • Nature of the copyrighted work
      • Educational, informative works are viewed to be more beneficial in their dissemination to the public than non-educational, fictional works that are intended to generate a profit.
    • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
      • Less is more is the rule here: the smaller the portion that is taken for use from a copyrighted work, the better.
      • The substantiality (i.e., importance) of the portion used with reference to the work as a whole is also an important consideration.
        • For example, copying a stanza of a poem that is considered to the “heart” or “foundation” of that poem could be considered copyright infringement.
    • Effect of the use on the potential market of the copyrighted work
      • Use that deprives income from the owner of a copyrighted work is most always considered infringement.
      • This means that if a specific use of a copyrighted work is available for purchase, that specific use will most likely not qualify for fair use and must be purchased.
        • For example, if an educational/institutional license of a work is available for purchase, that license must be purchased for educational uses (e.g., showing a film in a classroom).
  • Can I show a movie in my classroom?
    Generally, showing a movie within a classroom will not be a problem as long as the film can be demonstrated to be relevant to the course material. However, if there is a version of the film that is intended to be licensed for educational use, that version should be purchased and used rather than a version intended for personal use.
  • Can I stream a movie to my online class?
    Streaming a film for an online class is a more complicated issue than simply showing the film within a classroom. Because streaming a film typically involves creating a digital copy of that film from a DVD and then uploading the digital copy to a server, many film distribution companies and copyright owners view the streaming of their films without permission as infringing on their exclusive rights of “reproduction” and “distribution.” Therefore, it is best to determine if there is a streaming/educational use license provided by a distribution company for a particular film. If none can be found, the film’s distribution company should be contacted to ask for permission to stream the film and potentially develop a license agreement. Online streaming services such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix are also good sources to check for easy and legal streaming of films.
  • What do I need to consider when using copyrighted music with videos?
    Using copyrighted music in a video without permission from the music's copyright holder is copyright infringement. Using a portion of a copyrighted song might be argued to be a fair use, but using the whole song would be a problem. The issue here is that, while the contents of the video may have an educational purpose, the use of background music usually has no relation to that educational purpose--it would likely be viewed as only serving a secondary function of making the video more entertaining. The best bet for legally using music in a video would be to ask copyright owners for written permission to use their music or to use music that is in the Public Domain (typically would be music published before 1923), music that is found on a stock or open source music website, or original music.
  • What copyright issues do I need to consider in relation to photography?

    As long as a photograph of people is taken in a public place (not in a home or business) you shouldn't need permission to do so. However, if a photographer is taking photos of people in such a way that they are clearly identifiable, it would be safest to have them sign a release form or to at least ask for their permission first. When taking photographs of people for advertising, marketing, or commercial purposes, they should first be asked to sign a release form. Obviously, a photographer could get into trouble if a photograph is taken in an offensive way or such that it could be considered defaming by the people in the photograph.

    Generally, if a work of art is displayed in a public area, it shouldn't infringe copyright to take a photograph of it and use that photograph (for non-commercial and non-advertising purposes, of course). If a work of art is located within a private location, though, such as in a museum, gallery, or business, the photographer would need to first receive permission.

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Please visit these other copyright information resources for further information on the issues addressed in this FAQ and more:

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