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Understanding Copyright

This LibGuide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Copyright is not a new concept.  In fact, the framers of the US Constitution included copyright 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"

None of those people, however, could ever have imagined what technological changes would occur in the next 250 years that would affect how people share information and challenge how copyright works.  The ability to easily copy, download, digitize, mix, mash-up, edit, and all the other options available through technology have all added wrinkles to how copyright is interpreted and enforced.  Many believe that copyright law is out of date and in need of revision.

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.

© - is it required?

At one point, everything that was copyrighted displayed the copyright symbol - ©.  That 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 or display the copyright symbol to be copyrighted; they are covered by copyright the instant they are put into tangible form.  Many people don't realize it but they minute they put something in tangible form - writing a note, putting something on a cocktail napkin, even texting a friend - it is copyrighted and covered by copyright law. 

Before a copyright holder can claim an infringement of their exclusive rights under copyright law, a work must be registered with the copyright office.  Copyright notices generally contain the symbol, copyright holders' name and date of the copyright, e.g., © Mary Smith 1993.

Understanding Copyright

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

Congress allowed for these exclusive rights so that creators would have an incentive to create works that would then educate the population and introduce new ideas.  However, there are also exceptions to these rights, which are provided so that others can use copyrighted material to make new works and enable our society to continually identify or create new and better ideas, discoveries, research, fiction, etc.  These exceptions are know as "Fair Use" exceptions and are discussed in the tab "Exemptions & Fair Use"