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Copyright Basics: FAQ

This guide provides answers to common copyright questions.

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The University of Michigan Library Copyright Office provides help with copyright questions for University of Michigan faculty, staff and students. Please email us with questions or visit our website for more information.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors, photographers, composers, and other creators to control some reproduction and distribution of their work. There are several different rights that make up copyright. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part
  • Prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, and musical arrangements
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Publicly display the work

The law sets forth some important limitations on these rights, including fair use, which permits use without the permission of the copyright holder in some situations.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects literature, music, painting, photography, dance, and other forms of creative expression. To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be:

  • Original: A work must be created independently and not copied.
  • Creative: There must be some minimal degree of creativity involved in making the work.
  • A work of authorship: This includes literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural works. It may include other kinds of creative works.
  • Fixed: The work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" — written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, recorded on an audio or video tape, etc.

What isn't protected by copyright?

Copyright does not protect:

  • Facts and ideas
  • Processes, methods, systems, and procedures
  • Titles
  • All works prepared by the United States Government
  • Constitutions and laws of State governments
  • Materials that have passed into the public domain

How do works acquire copyright?

Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright. Today, formal procedures such as copyright notice, registration, or publication are not required to obtain copyright. This means that almost everything is conceivably subject to copyright if it's original. This includes not just published material, such as books and articles, but also your emails and letters, your assignments, your drafts, and your snapshots. You do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, it's a good idea to include a copyright notice along with your contact information. That way, people who want to re-use your work will be able to contact you. A good copyright notice might look something like "© 2016 C. Holder. For permissions and questions contact c.holder@holder.com."  Creative Commons licenses are an effective way to notify others of the uses you permit - and for you to know how other creators are willing to let you use their work.

How long does copyright last?

Today, copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication.  For many works, however, calculating duration of copyright can be very complex.  One useful reference is Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Who is the owner of a copyrighted work?

The creator is usually the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. Note that this may differ from common academic conduct and expectations, where the lead author may be considered more important than the others - in the absence of something to the contrary in writing, all authors share copyright equally.  The lead author does not implicitly have a larger copyright interest than the other authors, even if there is a difference in the significance of status or contribution. 

If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work made for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. Employees of the University of Michigan should consult the University of Michigan Copyright Policy for more information. In the case of work by independent contractors or freelancers, the copyright belongs to the contractor or freelancer unless otherwise negotiated beforehand, and agreed to in writing.

It is possible to transfer or assign copyright; this frequently happens as a part of publishing agreements. In many cases, the publisher holds the copyright to a work, and not the author. A valid copyright transfer requires a signed written agreement.  You can transfer or assign all of your copyrights or only certain parts.  For example, you could assign the right to distribute your book in the United States to one publisher and the right to distribute it in Europe and North Africa to another publisher.

How do I know if the work I want to use is copyrighted?

Copyright protection arises automatically the moment an original work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," in other words, the moment that text is written down or typed, or the moment a song is recorded.

A work does not need to be registered, published, or have a copyright notice on it to be protected by copyright. For works created in the U.S., copyright lasts from the moment a work is created until 70 years after the death of the author, except for works produced by a company/employer in which case the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication. Because copyright protection happens so easily, and lasts so long, you should assume that any work you want to use is copyrighted, unless it is very old or produced by the U.S. government.

Copyright has expired for works published in the United States before 1923, which means they are in the public domain. You are free to use or reproduce works in the public domain however you want. In addition, some works published between 1923 and 1963 may also be in the public domain, but this can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. All works created after 1963 are under copyright, except for work produced by the U.S. government, and state constitutions and laws. If you are trying to determine whether a work published during that time period is still under copyright, the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database is a good place to start.

Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's handbook, Is it in the Public Domain?, are also helpful resources for determining a work's public domain status.

What is fair use?

Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder for purposes such as criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and teaching. There are four factors to consider when determining whether your use is a fair one. You must consider all the factors below, even though all the factors do not have to be in favor of a use to make it a fair one.

The four fair use factors are as follows:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work, such as whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, published or unpublished;
  3. The amount of the work used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, such as using a poem in its entirety, or using one chapter from a long book;
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work.

For assistance in analyzing these factors for individual cases, see the Fair Use Evaluator provided by the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy and Michael Brewer.

Just because your use is for non-profit educational purposes does not automatically give you permission to copy and distribute other people's work. While many educational uses may be fair, you will probably need to evaluate your use each time you are reproducing copyrighted material — to show in your class, to hand out copies, to include in your writing, or to post on Canvas.

How do I know if I am allowed to use a work in my classroom?

The rules governing use of materials in a face to face classroom are broader than fair use, and those rules give you more leeway as far as what you are allowed to copy, display, and distribute in your classes. You may display or perform a work in your class without obtaining permission or doing a fair use evaluation when your use meets all three of these criteria:

The use is

  • for instructional purposes
  • in face-to-face teaching
  • at a nonprofit educational institution.

Uses you are allowed to make include

  • showing all or part of a movie or television show
  • including pictures, images, graphs, and charts in your lecture slides
  • playing music

For additional information about using movies within the classroom, look at ©Guide | Teaching, Scholarship, Copyright, and Movies.

How do I know if I am allowed to post a work to Canvas?

Because there are no exact rules governing fair use, you have to use your best judgment when deciding whether to post materials to Canvas without permission. There is no specific number of chapters, paragraphs, or lines that is certainly fair (or unfair), nor are there specific percentages. Copying a single chapter from a book may be fine, while copying the entire book usually is not. Consider the four factors mentioned above, and try to determine honestly whether your use seems reasonable. You can check your judgment by answering this question: "If someone used this much of my work would I think it was fair, or would I want to be asked for permission?"

One option is to make the material available to your students through library reserves.

Remember that you should always use the password-protection features of Canvas and limit site access to participants in your class only.

If the material is already freely available elsewhere on the web, or through library electronic resources, you can also use Canvas to direct your students to a link. It is always legal to link to copyrighted material hosted elsewhere.

How do I know if I am allowed to upload or stream a video?

Fair use is a faculty member's most powerful tool when it comes to using the work of others in the classroom for the purpose of education. Key parts of the US Copyright Act - including relevant limitations to a copyright holder’s rights – apply to the copying of movies for teaching. Generally these limitations work together to provide educators a broad set of abilities to make use of copyrighted materials in their day-to-day teaching. Understanding these limitations will allow teachers to effectively make use of copyrighted materials and to respect and fully utilize the protections provided to them by the law.

For information on making use of film and video, please see our excellent resources:

How do I know if I am allowed to include a work in my writing?

One goal of fair use is to allow the inclusion of quotations and excerpts in scholarly works without seeking permission. Some people believe that there are hard and fast numbers to determine how much of a work you may legally use – no more than X lines of a song, or no more than Y words of a text – but that is not the case. Every use is different, and must be considered individually.

If you are writing a book or article for publication, your publisher may want you to get permission for the use of all copyrighted material, even uses that you may think are fair. Because every publisher has its own policy on what it considers to be legally safe, it would be impractical for you to try to clear rights before you receive an offer for publication. However, you should be aware that you may be responsible for clearing permissions for publication and that there may be a cost associated with acquiring those rights.

If you are writing a paper for a class and you have no intention of publishing it, you have much broader leeway as far as what you can use. Remember, however, that fair use is a concept in copyright law, and that it does not alter your academic obligation to provide proper citation for works that you use. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different things - see the English Department Note on Plagiarism if you have any questions about plagiarism.

How do I know if I am allowed to use a work in my conference presentation?

The same fair use provisions that protect the use of quotations and excerpts in scholarly writing also protect those uses in scholarly presentations. You may be able to include copyrighted text, images, or videos in your presentation slides.

However, if the conference organizers plan to use your presentation after it is over – for example, if video of your presentation is posted on the conference website, or if the slides are made freely available for download – your ability to include copyrighted work may be more limited. You can generally show more than you can share, and you should clarify these issues in advance so that you have time to clear rights for the copyrighted material in your presentation, create a second version for distribution that does not include the copyrighted material, or choose alternative material that you are free to use.

How do I know if I am allowed to use a work in a distance learning class?

The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act) says that teachers and students at accredited educational institutions can use works for distance learning without permission under certain circumstances.

If you:

  • are an educator at an accredited educational institution,
  • will supervise your students' use of copyrighted materials,
  • are using the material as an integral part of a class session,
  • are using the material as an integral part of your curriculum, and
  • are using the material that is directly related to and of material assistance to your teaching content,

and you plan to use copyrighted works in the following ways:

  • performances of nondramatic literary works (i.e., a recording of a novel being read aloud);
  • performances of nondramatic musical works (i.e., a recording of a symphony);
  • performances of reasonable amounts of any work (i.e., an excerpt from a movie); or
  • display of any work in an amount comparable to what would be used in a live classroom.

then your use aligns with the TEACH Act. For more help, see North Carolina State University's TEACH Act Toolkit, which gives more in-depth information about copyright and distance education.

What if I got the work from a website?

Works residing on a site that makes no mention of copyright should be presumed to be copyrighted; just because something is freely available on a website does not mean it is in the public domain. If a work is published online with a statement that it is in the public domain, you will have to judge whether or not these claims are trustworthy, keeping in mind that such claims will not protect you should a copyright holder object to your use.

You may encounter works online for which the author or creator specifically grants rights to use them, such as those released under a Creative Commons license. A Creative Commons license allows you to make certain uses of a work without asking for permission, provided you follow the terms set by the creator.

What if I created the work?

Unless you created the work as part of your job as an employee or under contract as a work for hire, you are the author and the initial copyright holder. However, if you have transferred your copyright to someone else, such as a journal publisher, you are no longer the copyright holder and may not have any privileges to use the work. If you are not sure, you should consult your publishing agreement to see if you have retained any rights.

If you have not retained rights to use your work, then you must treat it like any other copyrighted work — decide whether the use you want to make is a fair use, and if it isn't, then ask for permission.

What if a student created the work?

Students hold the copyright to the academic works they create, such as their papers, projects, theses, and dissertations. There are also privacy concerns related to the use of student work. If you wish to use student work, ask for permission.

What if the work was published outside the US?

There are differences in copyright law across countries. The Berne Convention, signed by 163 countries, requires that countries recognize the works of foreign authors the same way they do those of their own nationals. For example, all works performed or published in the US, are subject to the terms of US copyright law, no matter where they were created originally. Most countries have standardized their copyright terms, so foreign copyrights tend to last as long as U.S. copyrights: the life of the author plus 70 years. When determining whether or not you can make a particular use of a foreign work, you will need to consider the specific circumstances of your case, such as the country where the work originated, whether or not the work is in print, and how you plan to use the work.

What does it mean if a work is Creative Commons licensed?

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that created a set of simple, easy-to-understand copyright licenses. These licenses allow creators to mark a work with permission to make a variety of uses, with the aim of expanding the range of things available for others to quote, adapt, and build upon. Creative Commons licenses do two things: They allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find work that is free to use without permission. As long as you obey the terms of the license attached to the work, you can use Creative Commons licensed material without fear of accidentally infringing someone’s copyright.

For more information, visit the Creative Commons website.

What can I do if the use I want to make is not a fair use?

If you have determined that the use you want to make is not a fair use, you must ask for permission from the copyright holder. See the section on requesting permission to use copyrighted material for more information and sample request letters.

Can I record my lecture and make it available online?

The staff at Open.Michigan can help UM faculty, students, and staff with creating Open Educational Resources.  Please see their Guidelines for Sharing Recordings.  Open.Michigan also supports a community of practice for people wanting to learn how to create open educational resources.  Find out more at Practice Your Sharing.

How is plagiarism related to copyright?

Plagiarism is often confused with copyright infringement. In fact, plagiarism is when you fail to properly credit and cite the works and ideas of another person. Copyright infringment is when you make unauthorized use of someone else's work without paying them compensation if required, violating a copyright holder's legal rights.

How do I register my copyright?

You do not have to register your work to receive and retain copyright protection, but if you plan to publish, post, or otherwise distribute your work, it may be a good idea to do so since registration confers a number of legal benefits. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright. Registering is not difficult, and the fee is $35.00 if done electronically: for instructions and forms, visit the United States Copyright Office website. If you have any questions regarding copyright registration, the US Copyright Office has a toll-free help line at 1-877-476-0778.


This page was adapted from Peggy Hoon's Using Copyrighted Works in Your Teaching FAQ: Questions Faculty and Teaching Assistants Need to Ask Themselves Frequently, which was released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.5 license.

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to the University of Michigan, please contact the Office of the General Counsel.