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Copyright at American University

This guide is to provide a basic understanding of copyright laws including important exemptions that apply to the American University community.


U.S. Copyright Law, briefly

Copyright is a monopoly created by law that gives authors and creators a certain set of exclusive rights in the things they create.

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, a revision that superceded previous U.S. copyright legislation, gives copyright protection to works that are original and "fixed in a tangible medium or expression". To be fixed in a tangible form means that an idea or ephemeral act such as a speech cannot be copyrighted unless it is recorded, transcribed, or otherwise captured in a fixed form that can be perceived by others. If it can be seen, read, watched,or heard then it is likely copyrightable. The Copyright Act of 1976 also included new rules on copyright term, copyright notice and registration,  remedies for copyright infringement, and for the first time it codified Fair Use (Section 107) and right of first sale doctrines. Section 108 was also added and this gave permission to libraries to copy works for purposes of scholarship, preservation, and interlibrary loan.

Originality means that an element of creativity was involved in the production of a new work and the work is not a copy of someone else's work. Courts recognize that even a small amount of creativity is satisfactory to make a work copyrightable.

Ideas and facts cannot be copyrighted. Works published by the U.S. Government cannot be copyrighted - though works produced by state and local governments may be.

Copyrights exist for specific time periods and once they expire the works are no longer protected. After a copyright has expired, the work enters the "public domain" and can be used freely. The act of making a work openly accessible on the internet does not mean that the work is in the public domain. The work is likely still copyrighted though the author has chosen to make it openly accessible.

Is it necessary to register a copyright? No, and works created after 1978 are not required to display a copyright symbol © or have a copyright notice at all. A work becomes copyrighted upon its creation. However registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is still available and it offers the following advantages: It establishes a public record of the copyright claim; Copyright must be registered before you can sue for infringement; Registration may be done at any time during the life of the copyright however only registration within three months of the date of creation will entitle the owner to statutory damages and lawyers fees. Registration three months or more after the date of creation will limit a copyright owner's potential award to actual damages and profits. It's also important to note that the U.S. Copyright Office doesn't verify that a work is indeed original before registering it. Verification can only be done in a court of law.

Length of copyright. Most new works are protected for the life of the author plus seventy years. Works published in the U.S. prior to 1923 are in the public domain. U.S. works published between 1923 and 1978 could be protected up to 95 years from the date of creation. Copyrights on foreign works differ from the U.S. law and foreign works produced prior to 1923 might still be protected.

Who owns the copyright? In many cases the sole author is the logical owner of a copyright. However in cases where there are multiple authors there may be joint owners. There are also works-for-hire where the copyright belongs to the employer. A copyright can also be transferred to a new owner by written consent of the original owner.

What rights does copyright encompass?

The right to reproduce the work; the right to distribute the work; the right to make derivative works; the right to publicly display the work; and the right to publicly perform the work.

Exceptions. Several exceptions to these rights exist and are especially important in an educational setting. Among them are Section 107 Fair Use; Section 108 library copying; Section 109(a) First Sale doctrine ; Section 109(c) Exception for public displays; Section 110 (1) the face-to-face teaching exemption; Section 110(2)  the TEACH Act ;and Section 121 special formats for persons with disabilities

The provisions mentioned above are covered at greater length elsewhere in this subject guide:

Fair Use guidelines

Face to face Teaching Exemption - described under the Teaching with Video tab

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA)



Useful links

Copyright Basics (Circular 1, U.S. Copyright Office)

U.S. Copyright Office

Copyright Reform Principles for Libraries, Archives, and Other Memory Institutions - an article that discusses the use of Section 108 by institutions

Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for digitization for libraries, archives, and museums (Cornell U)

You want to know about copyright in education  - a flowchart 

Know your copy rights: What you can do - tips for faculty

Keep your copyrights (Columbia Law School)

Files on record: Timeline of copyright milestones - from the Library of Congress

Teaching Copyright - a project of the Electronic Freedom Foundation

What is intellectual property? - from the World Intellectual Property Organization

10 simple rules to protect your intellectual propertyJolly, Mark, Anthony C. Fletcher, and Philip E. Bourne. “Ten Simple Rules to Protect Your Intellectual Property.” PLoS Computational Biology 8.11 (2012): e1002766. PMC. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.