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Research Guides@TCC Libraries

Copyright and Fair Use: Research Guide

Copyright FAQ:

Question: What is copyright?

Answer:  Beginning (in America) as a mere 19 words in the constitution, "copy right" was originally intended 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" (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8).  In essence, Congress understood there needed to be a financial incentive for creativity, but it also understood that after a certain point, that balance needed to tip more toward the public good.  Over time, American "copy right" has evolved from a mere 19 words to 366 pages of law. As this might suggest, copyright has become convoluted.  But the slightly good news is, there are only a few critical sections that really affect educators.  Knowing the core concepts of copyright will often guide you to making cogent and law-abiding decisions.

Question: What does copyright "protect"? 

Answer:  Simply, copyright grants monopoly to any "fixed" and "creative" work.   A photograph is obviously copyrighted.  And so is a digital photograph; (it's "fixed" on a computer).  A grocery list is generally not copyrighted because though it may be fixed, it's not creative. A taxidermied animal is copyrighted.  A phone book is generally interpreted as not copyrighted because it's not creative.  Microsoft office is copyrighted or an iPhone app is copyrighted; but the something like gene sequencing is not copyrighted (rather it's patented.)   Clothing designs are definitely copyrighted; so are buildings and roller coasters.  A classroom assignment is generally copyrighted, but a course outline template, assigned by administrators, is generally not copyrighted.  It may be fixed, but it's not creative. 

Question: How does one "register" a work to make it copyrighted?

Answer: Believe it or not, a person does not have to register a copyright for a work to be copyrighted.  Since 1978, when copyright law was massively changed, if you create something, it's copyrighted.  That said, if you create something that you feel will generate a potential profit or something you want the world to know you created, you should register your work.  Registering your work serves to create a record which shows who "owns" the rights.  It's the essential safeguard. 

Question:  Are there creative works that are not copyrighted?

Answer:  Yes.  An essential aspect to copyright is that every creative work will eventually fall into the "public domain."  A public domain work occurs after a work has existed for a certain amount of time.  Here's, however, where it get's really confusing: because copyright law has been extended (in law) a mere 11 times, it's not always clear whether a work is in the public domain.  We'll cover this in more detail in the "public domain" section but the general rule of thumb is this: if it was published before 1923, it's in the public domain.  If it was published after 1923, it may or may not be in the public domain.  If it published after 1923, assume that it is still copyrighted unless there is clear evidence otherwise. 

Another type of work that may not be totally copyrighted are Creative Commons works. Again, there will be more information about this later, but creative commons allows the creator to say how and to what extent their work is used.  The effort of Creative Commons is to enable greater sharing and use of works created by someone else.

Question: Is there any way that we can use a work that is still under copyright?

If there is any aspect of copyright that an educator needs to be informed about, it is section 107, or rather, the Fair Use clause.  Without fair use, photocopying short passages and sharing with students would be against the law; library reserves would be against the law; creating something completely original with a copyrighted work as the inspiration would be against the law.  Unfortunately, applying fair use is not a cut and dry practice.  What may be completely fair use to me, may seem like copyright infringement to someone else (often the creator).  Nonetheless, understanding how fair use can be applied is the most important strategy to empowering one self while also abiding by the law. 

Question: Can a TCC librarian provide answers to my copyright question?

For cut and dry questions, librarians can offer strong recommendations.  However, much of copyright is gray.  In those situations, librarians can often offer guidance and point you to further information.    

Content created by TCC Libraries is licensed as CC BY 4.0