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Learning Commons | Cardinal Cushing Library

Copyright for Students: Copyright Basics


"Copyright is a  form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of 'original works of authorship' that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. An original work of authorship is a work that is independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work is 'fixed' when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed." (Copyright Basics (Circ. 1) U.S. Copyright Office).
Note: Ideas and facts cannot be copyrighted, only the tangible expression in a fixed medium of the idea can.  

Copyright protects an author's right to reproduce (copy), distribute (license), make derivatives of the work, publicly display and perform the work.

  • This means that if you wish to make a copy of a copyrighted work (unless it is considered a "fair use") you must get permission from the owner of the work
  • You also generally cannot publicly display a copyrighted work (say a movie or work of art) unless you have permission to do so or a recognized "copyright exception" exists.

Here are a few common misperceptions (and corrections) about copyright law basic principles.

1. The internet is fair game.

  • False.  Copyright laws still apply.

2.  No © = no copyright.

  • False.  

3.  Use in teaching = fair use.

  • False.  Fair use requires a case-by-case and individualized determination of each source used.  

1. Determine if permission is needed.
(See exceptions to copyright: Fair Use; Public Domain; Creative Commons)

2. Determine who owns the rights.

3. Contact the rights owner for permission to use the work.

Further information: How to Obtain Permission (United States Copyright Office)


These are basic guidelines and do not represent legal advise.
Please seek legal counsel for questions related to copyright and fair use.

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