Having a basic understanding of how the copyright law works is helpful as you consider using the copyrighted works of others. Keep in mind the perspective of both the owner and use of copyrighted material, the golden rule of copyright, “if you were the copyright owner, would you see the proposed use as acceptable use and not expect to be asked for permission?”

Merely owning a book, CD, DVD, VHS, poster, painting, or other product does not give you the right to make copies, distribute copies, make derivatives or publicly perform or display that material. You have only purchased the right to own your personal physical copy. Making a copy to sell, for a friend, or for further distribution or for various other uses may not be within your rights.

Review the Rules Before You Use.

Navigating trademarked and copyrighted materials can be tricky. That’s why we’ve created our Intellectual Property Guide, to help you cover your media use bases.

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More Copyright Basics

Copyright is protection provided by law (17 U.S.C. §102) to the authors/creators of “original works of authorship,” expressed in a tangible medium. This protection is available for original works from the moment they are created in a tangible medium, and it applies whether they are published, unpublished, or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright protection is available for an author/creator if three requirements are met:

1. Fixation—the work exists in a medium from which the author’s expression can be read, seen, or heard, either directly or by the aid of a machine.

2. Originality—the work owes its origin and independent creation to an author.

3. Minimal creativity—the work is the product of at least a minimal level of creativity.

Most original works are protected by copyright. The U.S. Copyright law places copyrightable works in the following categories:
 

  • 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

  • Architectural works
     

You should view these categories broadly. For example, computer programs and most compilations may be categorized and registered as literary works; maps and architectural plans may be categorized and registered as pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.

Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Law gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work

  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work

  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental lease, or lending

  • Perform the work publicly

  • Display the copyrighted work publicly

  • Perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission, in the case of sound recordings

  • Certain rights of attribution and integrity, in the case of works of visual art
     

The rights of the copyright owner are, in some instances, limited as several sections of the U.S. Copyright Law have established limitations on these rights. However, unless one or more of the limitations (exceptions) apply, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted works in any of the listed ways.

The copyright owner is the person or entity who owns the exclusive rights mentioned above. The copyright owner could be the author, the publisher, or another person or entity having legal ownership of one or more of the exclusive rights described above.

Consult the Copyright Genie, a series of questions and answers, developed by Michael Brewer, ALA Office for Information Technology Policy.

Unprotected Materials

Copyright protection does not extend to the following, therefore permission is not required for you to use them:
 

  1. Works for which the copyright has expired.

  2. Works federal government employees produced within the scope of their employment.

  3. Works clearly and explicitly donated to the public domain.

  4. Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or spontaneous speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded).

  5. Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.

  6. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration.

  7. Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship (for example, standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources).

Pertinent copyright terms are defined by Carrie Russell in Complete Copyright: An Everyday Guide for Librarians, an ALA publication (PDF).