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Copyright and Fair Use: Copyright

Learn about copyright and fair use


Title 17 of the United States Code contains the formal statues that govern copyright in the United States. The statutes attempt to balance the rights of the creators and the free flow of information. It is important that individuals have a basic understanding of copyright law in order to ethically navigate the mass amounts of information in its various formats that can be easily reproduced in todays world. Learn about copyright on this page and then click on the Fair Use tab to learn about limitations and exemptions for copyright liability.


What is copyrightable?

  • Work must be original.
  • Work must be in a "tangible medium of expression." (On paper, on computer, recorded on video or audio, etc.)
  • Works include: 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.
  • Copyright protection is not provided to an idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. Additionally, facts, titles, government publications and public domain materials are not copyright protected.

Copyright is automatic.

  • Once an original idea is created in a tangible medium it is protected by copyright. Nothing needs to be filed officially to hold a copyright.  However, if copyright is important to you it will be easier to make a claim if it is officially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Almost everyone is a copyright holder and it should always be assumed that every creation in a fixed medium is protected by copyright unless otherwise stated.
  • A work does not have to be published to have copyright protection.

Duration of copyright.

  • Copyright protection from 1978 to the present is 70 years after the death of the creator.
  • Generally, works created before 1923 are in the public domain.
  • Works between 1923-1978 will need to be researched.
  • See for more specific information.

Learn about the rights of the copyright holder by clicking on the "Rights of Copyright Holders" tab.

In most instances the copyright owner is the author of the work and has exclusive rights to do and authorize the following:

Reproduction Rights.

  • The owner of the copyright may reproduce in copies or phonorecords. Reproduction rights include, but are not limited to, the following:
    • Photocopying pages.
    • Quoting sentences in an article.
    • Scanning, digitizing and downloading.

Derivative Works.

  • The owner of the copyright may prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. Derivative works are based on or derived from one or more existing work. Types of derivative works include, but are not limited to the following:
    • Motion picture and/or screenplay of a novel.
    • Translations of a work into another language.
    • A musical arrangement of an existing work.
    • Digitally altered version of a recording, image or text.
    • Artwork inspired by an existing work.
    • A ballet or play from an existing story.

Distribution Rights.

  • The copyright owner has the right distribute copies of a copyrighted work by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. Examples of distribution rights include, but are not limited to the following:
    • Materials handed out in a classroom.
    • Images posted on a website.
    • Email attachment.
  • Exceptions:
    • 17 U.S.C. § 109(a). The First Sale Doctrine allows individuals to purchase a particular copy of a book or CD and sell or give it someone else.
    • 17 U.S.C. § 121.  Allows special formats to be produced and distributed for persons with disabilities with some limitations.
Public Performance and Display.
  • In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform 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, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

    • Examples of Public Performance and Display include, but are not limited to the following:
    • Displaying text or a picture.
    • Reading text aloud, reciting lines or acting out a play, video or film shown on a monitor,  singing or playing a song.
    • It is ok to do all these things with a normal sized group of friends or family. It is an infringement if it is a public performance or display.
Are you violating copyright law if you print a copy of a chapter in a book? Click on the Fair Use tab at the top to learn about exemptions.

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Links to Additional Resources


The information presented in this guide is not intended to be legal advice or to replace the advice of legal counsel. Dickinson State University is not responsible for the content found on links to third party sites.