Frequently Asked Questions
- What is a copyright?
A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection, arising from the Constitutional mandate that there must be some sort of limited monopoly for authors and creators in order to further the purpose of promoting the progress of science and the useful arts. Copyright law, therefore, attempts to strike a delicate balance between the interests of the creators and the interests of the public in accessing and using their work.
- What can be copyrighted? What cannot?
Copyright protection extends to all original works of authorship, including literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, sound recordings, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works. It does not extend to general facts and ideas, nor does it protect works produced by federal government employees when the work in question is created within the scope of their normal employment duties.
- How do I copyright my work?
Actually, it happens automatically. As soon as your original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is automatically fully protected by copyright. There are just two requirements: originality and fixation.
- How do I register my copyright? How much does it cost?
It costs $45 to register your copyright, which you do by filling out certain forms with the U.S. Copyright Office. The forms with instructions can all be found online.
- Does a work have to be published to be copyrighted?
No, unpublished works are fully protected (in some ways, more protected, at least as to first publication rights) by copyright. That would mean, for example, that an old published letter may have long ago entered the public domain, while an unpublished letter of the same vintage might still enjoy copyright protection. However, a provision in the 1976 Copyright Act, provides that, beginning December of 2002, unpublished works will enter the public domain as soon as their creator has been deceased for seventy years.
- How long does a copyright last?
According to the Constitution, it is supposed to last a "limited time," but that limited time has grown considerably over the years. As of our last Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, the term of copyright is now the life of the author plus seventy (70) years. If it an anonymous work or a work that belongs to a company, for example, the term is ninety-five (95) years from publication or one hundred twenty (120) years from creation, whichever is shorter.
- What is the public domain?
A work that is in the public domain may be freely used without any copyright issues. This category includes:
- works with expired or lost copyright;
- works not copyrightable by nature (i.e. ideas, facts, titles, etc.);
- works produced by a federal government employees in the course of their job;
- works clearly donated to the public domain; and
- works published in the United States prior to 1923.
- If a work is out of print, does that mean it's no longer copyrighted?
Unfortunately, no. It just means you may have a harder time finding the copyright holder and perhaps a stronger case for fair use.
- Are there any concise, authoritative resources that can help determine when a particular publication might be free of copyright protection?
The U.S. Copyright Office issues an ongoing series of Copyright Circulars that are intended to demystify certain aspects of copyright law. They are frequently revised and therefore an excellent source of current information.
- What is fair use?
Fair use refers to an exemption in the Copyright Act that can allow use without permission in some cases. There are four factors that must be considered along the way. You can read more about this in the fair use section.
- If I'm copying something for an educational purpose, isn't that fair use?
It depends. Copying a copyrighted work for educational purposes doesn't automatically make that copying fair use. Fair use can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, which takes into account the balance of the four factors.
- What if I need to copy more than would be permitted under fair use?
If none of the other copyright exceptions apply, then you will need to secure permission from the copyright owner before you use the material.
- My request for permission was denied by the copyright owner. What can I do now?
You must NOT use a work if permission has been refused by the copyright holder. You can attempt to negotiate use in further correspondence or pay a licensing fee, where possible. Above all else, have an alternative to the material or curtail your use to comply with fair use principles.
- What if my permission request was denied but now I believe fair use or a specific provision of the copyright law applies? Am I disadvantaged because I already requested permission?
Previous payment of a fee or even outright denial of permission does not preclude you from exercising your rights under the copyright act. You can still employ an appropriate specific provision or the fair use provision and there is no presumption against you for having asked permission.
- What if there is no response?
Lack of response does not translate into a passive grant of permission to use. If your proposed use exceeds all provisions of the law, including fair use, you probably need to direct your students to a link to the work, find another work to use, or modify your proposed use to fit within fair use.
- What if I can't find current contact information for the copyright holder? For example the publisher is out of business or the author is deceased.
Such situations present the problem of a work whose copyright holder cannot be located, despite reasonable efforts. The U.S. Copyright Office has recognized this problem, calling such works orphan works. Educators must make individual decisions concerning their use of such works, including evaluating the risk of liability. Those who proceed with their use should document and preserve their efforts to locate the copyright holder.
- Can I copy a printed journal article for my students?
Yes, distribution of multiple copies of an article for classroom use can be a fair use. Allowance of this copying is expressed in the statute, but a fair use analysis is needed to determine whether fair use applies to any particular set of circumstances surrounding a use.
- Can I download a digital copy of an article and post it to my Blackboard site?
Fair use applies to the use of digital as well as print versions of copyrighted works. For digital articles, however, you will need to restrict access to only those students enrolled in the course and limit duration of an article's availability. A fair use analysis will also need to be conducted for each article you'd like to post on the web site.
- Can I download a PDF of an article that is licensed by the library and post it to my class web site?
Any use of copyrighted works made available by a license agreement through the University of Idaho Library must first comply with the terms of that license. These agreements often do NOT allow copying PDF files and reposting them onto another website or a personal Blackboard page. Frequently, though, you can make articles available through direct durable links.
- If an article is freely available online, is it protected by copyright?
Most likely. Copyright protection is automatically assigned to all new works as soon as they are fixed in a tangible medium. Materials presented online may be protected by copyright even if they are freely and openly available and do not display a copyright statement or symbol notice ("©").
- Can I copy chapters from a textbook and distribute them to my students?
Generally, this is NOT a fair use. The market for the textbook is directly affected by this activity. Students who would otherwise be expected to purchase the book no longer need to and the publisher is deprived of sales in their primary market.
- Can I show a video in my class without permission from the copyright owner?
Yes. Section 110 of U.S. Copyright Law permits showing a lawfully acquired video in the classroom.
- What is the TEACH Act?
The TEACH Act is a revision of the U.S. Copyright Act which allows instructors to perform or display copyrighted works in a distance education setting. The Act has many potential advantages for the use of digital technology in teaching. In order to take advantage of these benefits, however, instructors, technologists, and institutions must meet numerous detailed requirements. For more information, see the section devoted to the TEACH Act.