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Copyright for students: Understanding Copyright Law


Our Founding Fathers considered copyright and covered it in article 1, section 8 of the Constitution when they wrote, "The Congress shall have Power To ...promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries"

Not in their wildest imaginings, however, did they understand what technological changes would occur that would affect copyright questions in the 21st century.  The ability to easily copy, download, digitize, email, and/or scan have all added wrinkles to how copyright is interpreted and enforced.  There are some who believe that the copyright law is out of date and in need of revision in order to be more in-step with the electronic age in which we live.

This issue will be touched upon throughout this LibGuide.  However, the policies outlined in this guide all reflect the understanding of copyright that is carried out by the WVU Libraries.

After looking through the guide, library users - both faculty and students - should have a better understanding of copyright and how it impacts them as a member of the academic community.

Understanding Copyright

What is the purpose of copyright?

Copyright is the exclusive right of ownership given to someone who creates a work in a tangible form.  These exclusive rights are embodied in section 106 of the Copyright Act:

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • 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
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

However, in order to have a strong and intellectual public, Congress limited these rights so that others could use the copyrighted material to make new works and use past works to lead to new and better ideas, discoveries, research, plays, etc.  These exclusive rights can be exempted, if the circumstances warrant it and the law spells out what these exemptions are.  See tab "Exemptions & Fair Use" 

Basic copyright information

When doing basic research, students need to be aware of copyright rules as they pertain to copying journal articles and parts of books. 

Section 108 of the Copyright Act provides an exemption for copying when it relates to research and it is done in small amounts.  This means that you can legally copy an article from a journal issue when doing research but not the entire issue.  You can copy a small section of a book but not the entire book; guidelines suggest a small portion would be considered 10% or less.

Copyright notices, citing the law specifically, are posted by all copiers and printers in the WVU Libraries:

The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material; the person using this equipment is liable for any infringement.

© - is it required?

It used to be that everything that was copyrighted displayed the copyright symbol - ©.

That all changed in 1988 with the Berne Convention Implementation Act, which made it optional to use the copyright symbol on works published after March 1, 1989.  Since then, works no longer need to be registered to be copyrighted; they are considered to be covered by copyright the instant they are put into tangible form. 

Copyright notices generally contain the symbol, copyright holders' name and date of the copyright, e.g., © Mary Smith 1993.

A work should to be registered if the copyright holder wants to claim infringement of their exclusive rights.