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Copyright Basics

Provides information about U.S. copyright law, including rights of users, permission, and the public domain.

Copyright Questions?

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.

Legal Advice

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.

If you require legal advice in your personal capacity, the lawyer referral services operated by the Washtenaw County Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan may be helpful to you.

Does copyright law permit my use?

Copyright law gives the copyright holder (often the author or publisher) the right to control certain uses of works protected by copyright. If the work you want to use is protected by copyright, using it without permission could implicate the rights of the copyright holder. However, your use might still be permitted if it falls within a user’s right. Finally, even when copyright law permits your use, contract law may prohibit it.

The first step is to consider whether any contractual terms limit your ability to use the work. You must obey any terms that you agreed to in order to gain access to a copy of the work. This is common with software, electronic resources, and materials in archival or special collections.

Next, consider whether the work is copyrightable. In the United States, copyright does not protect ideas, facts, methods of operation, or the like. It also does not protect works prepared by an officer or employee of the US Government as part of that person's official duties.

Then, consider whether the work is in the public domain. Works that are in the public domain may be used without permission. In general, the older a work is, the more likely it is to be in the public domain. To check this, we recommend Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's handbook, Is it in the Public Domain?.

After that, consider whether there is an existing license (such as a Creative Commons license) granted by the work's rightsholder that would permit your use.

The next step is to consider the various user’s rights. Fair use is the broadest of these rights and is a good place to start. If you plan to publish your work, do you know if your publisher will permit you to rely on fair use for third-party content? Many do not, but if yours does (or if you will be distributing the work yourself), you’ll want to analyze whether your use of the work would qualify. Whether your use is fair will depend on the four fair use factors. There are no general limits on the amount of a work that you can use under fair use -- in some cases, it is fair use to use an entire work; in other cases, it is not fair use to use even a small portion of the work. Fair use favors academic and educational uses, but not all such uses are fair. If you do not believe your use to be fair, consider whether it falls under any of the specific user’s rights, such as the one for using works during face-to-face teaching.

Finally, if your planned use implicates one of the rights of copyright holders and does not fall under a user’s right, you will need to get permission from the copyright holder or change your plans.

What is copyright?

Copyright law gives the copyright holder (often the author or publisher) the right to control certain uses of works that are protected by copyright. It also gives users the right to make certain uses of those works without permission.

What is protected by copyright?

In the United States, copyright protects only “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be:

  • Original: To qualify as original, the work must be created independently and must have “at least a modicum” of creativity.
  • A work of authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, as well as many other types of creative works.
  • Fixed: A work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" by or under the authorization of the author. Writing a work on paper or on a computer hard drive, recording a work on tape, and sculpting a work out of marble (or ice!) all satisfy this requirement. An unrecorded improvisation (e.g., in music or dance) would not satisfy this requirement.

For more information about what is copyrightable, consult Copyrightability.

What isn't protected by copyright?

US copyright does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” It also does not protect works prepared by an officer or employee of the US Government as part of that person's official duties.

In the United States, copyright protection lasts for a limited time only. All copyrightable works eventually lose copyright protection. For more information about how long copyright lasts, consult Duration and Formalities.

How is plagiarism related to copyright?

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are related but distinct concepts. Plagiarism is using the work of another without attribution. Copyright infringement is the reproduction, modification, distribution, public performance, or public display of a copyrighted work without the permission of the rightsholder that does not fall under fair use or another exception to copyright law. It is possible to plagiarize even when copyright allows you to use the work. Similarly, it is possible to infringe copyright even when you have given careful attribution.

How do works get copyright protection?

In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works. The moment a copyrightable work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., written on a piece of paper or on your hard drive), it is subject to copyright.

In the past, authors had to comply with certain formalities in order to obtain copyright protection. These formalities included registering the work with the US Copyright Office and placing a copyright notice on the work. Copyright law no longer requires that authors comply with these formalities merely to obtain copyright protection. However, registering a work and putting a copyright notice on a work still come with legal benefits, so authors often do these things anyway.

How do I provide a copyright notice on my work?

Under current US law, 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, you may want to.

Putting a copyright notice (the copyright symbol (©), the year of publication, and the name of the copyright holder) on a work tells the rest of the world that the work is protected by copyright. If the copyright holder later sues someone for infringing her copyright in the work, she can point to the notice to show that the defendant is not an “innocent infringer," which can lead to higher damages. A copyright notice also lets others know whom to contact if they would like a license to use the work.

How do I register my copyright?

Under current US law, you do not have to register your work to receive copyright protection. You may want to register it anyway, because copyright registration comes with certain legal benefits. If the work is registered within three months of its publication date or before a particular infringement occurs, the copyright holder can recover statutory damages (monetary awards that need not be connected to actual harm suffered by the copyright holder) and attorney’s fees if she is successful in an infringement suit. Also, registration is required before the author can bring a lawsuit about the use of her work. However, despite these benefits, many works are never registered because registration takes time and money.

Registering a copyright is not difficult. For instructions and forms, visit the US 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. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright.

Registration costs can vary depending on the type of work and whether or not you are the sole author. The U.S. Copyright Office's Circular 4 has the most up to date information about registration fees.

How long does copyright last?

Most works created in the United States today will be protected until 70 years after the death of their last surviving author. Other rules apply for certain works. For instance, if a work was created by the employee of a corporation acting within the scope of her employment, the copyright will last either 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation of the work, whichever results in a shorter term.

Before March 1, 1989, duration for published works was tied to compliance with formalities. Thus, publication date, publication status, registration, notice, and renewal all impact copyright duration. In addition, because of international treaty obligations, the nationality of the author(s) and the location of publication(s) can also impact duration. We recommend using Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's PDF handbook, Is it in the Public Domain?, to determine whether a particular work is in the public domain in the United States.

All works published in the United States before 1925 are in the public domain in the United States.

Why was 1923 an important date for determining whether works are in the public domain?

In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny-Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and extended copyright protection for another 20 years for works that were not already in the public domain. Since works published in the US before 1923 were already in the public domain in 1998, their copyright was not extended. On January 1, 2019 (20 years after the Act was passed), the public domain unfroze and 1924 became the new cut off date. On January 1, 2020, 1925 became the new date. The date will continue to move on January 1 of each year.

Do new works enter the public domain each year?

Yes, as of 2019. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 froze the date at 1923 for twenty years. The date began to "roll" again in 2019. On January 1, 2019, works that were published in the US in 1923 entered the public domain.

Things are different for unpublished works, works published without proper notice, and works whose copyrights were not renewed. To determine whether a particular work is in the public domain, we recommend Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's PDF handbook, Is it in the Public Domain?.

What is copyright renewal, and how does it impact the duration of copyright?

Prior to 1964, US law divided copyright terms into two parts: the initial term and the renewal term. At the end of the initial 28-year copyright term, the copyright holder would have to renew the copyright in order for the work to remain protected during the renewal term. If you are trying to determine whether the copyright in a work published before 1964 was renewed, the following resources are useful for renewal research: the US Copyright Catalog (records from 1978 to present), the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database (1950 to 1992 renewal records for Class A works), and the Catalog of Copyright Entries (1891 to 1978 registration and renewal records for all works). Typically, you will find renewals for all works published after 1950 in the US Copyright Catalog, while the Catalog of Copyright Entries can be useful for finding renewals of works published prior to the early 1950s. You may also want to consider working with the US Copyright Office to perform a search of its records.

Who is the initial copyright holder?

Under US law, the initial copyright holder is the author of the work. In most cases, copyright law treats the creator(s) of the work as the author(s). If someone creates a work as an employee (or in certain cases, as a contractor), that person’s employer is considered the author of the work.

If two or more people make copyrightable contributions to a work with the intent that their contributions be merged into one whole, they are joint authors under US law. As joint authors, they hold equal shares of the copyright from the time the work is created. A joint rightsholder owes her co-rightsholders their shares of the profits from uses or licenses she makes of the work. Joint rightsholders can grant non-exclusive licenses unilaterally. To transfer the copyright or grant an exclusive license, all joint rightsholders must agree.

In the case of a “work made for hire,” the author under copyright law is the person who employed or commissioned the creator of the work, rather than the creator of the work herself. There are two ways a work can be a work made for hire. First, a work is a work made for hire if it is created by an employee who is acting within the scope of her employment. For example, if someone who works at an advertising agency creates an advertisement at work, that advertisement is a work made for hire. Second, a work is a work made for hire if it is commissioned “for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas,” and the commissioner and the creator of the work agreed in writing that it would be treated as a work made for hire.

By default, the University of Michigan holds copyright in works created by its employees within the scope of their employment, because they are works made for hire. The university’s copyright policy modifies that default for certain scholarly works by faculty. It also explains who is authorized to grant permission for use of works held by the university.

Can someone other than the author become the copyright holder?

It is possible to transfer or assign copyright; this frequently happens in 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.

What are the rights of a copyright holder?

Economic rights form the bulk of a copyright holder’s rights under US law. They stand in contrast to moral rights, which are less recognized under US law.

In US law, the economic rights of copyright holders are listed in Section 106 of the Copyright Act:

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. 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;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. 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; and
  6. in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

What are moral rights?

The legal doctrine of moral rights recognizes the personal reputation of an artist or creator. Moral rights include the right of attribution and the right of integrity. The right of attribution means that that the creator has the right to have her name associated with her work -- or disassociated if the work is damaged or modified in a way that leads the artist to feel that the work is no longer an embodiment of her intended expression. The right of integrity means that the work may not be changed, altered, distorted, or mutilated. In 1928, these concepts were included in Article 6bis of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Work, which governs international copyright.

Moral rights stand in contrast to the economic rights that are more broadly protected under US copyright law, such as the right of reproduction and the right of distribution. The US Copyright Act recognizes moral rights in a very limited way in Section 106A, the Visual Artists Rights Act. This provision was passed in 1990 as part of the United States’ entry into the Berne Convention. It applies only to "works of visual art,” either a painting, drawing, print, or sculpture, or a photograph produced for exhibition purposes only, where the work exists in a single copy or in 200 or fewer copies signed and numbered by the artist. Many types of works are specifically excluded from this protection, including works made for hire. The provision allows artists to waive these rights under contract.

What is fair use?

Fair use allows certain uses of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. There are four factors to consider when determining whether your use is a fair one. You must consider all the factors, but not all the factors have to favor fair use for the use to be fair.

The four fair use factors are

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Fair use favors “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, [and] research.” While many uses for educational purposes are fair, not all are. You 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 your course website.

Fair use is codified at 17 U.S.C. § 107.

Other than under fair use, am I allowed to use this work in my classroom?

US copyright law permits teachers and students to make certain uses of copyrighted works in face-to-face teaching. As a teacher or student, you are allowed to perform or display a copyrighted work without permission in “a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” during face-to-face teaching at a nonprofit educational institution.

If the work is a motion picture or other audiovisual work, you must use a copy of the work that was lawfully made.

This is codified at 17 U.S.C. § 110(1).

Other than under fair use, am I allowed to use this work in an online or distance learning class?

US copyright law gives teachers the right to use works for distance learning without permission under certain circumstances.

If you

  • are, or are acting under direction or actual supervision of, an instructor in a class session offered by an accredited nonprofit educational institution or governmental body;
  • are using the material as an integral part of a class session;
  • are using the material that is directly related to and of material assistance to your teaching content; and
  • are using a copy of the work that was prepared lawfully,

and the copyrighted work

  • was not “produced or marketed primarily for performance or display as part of mediated instructional activities transmitted via digital networks;” and
  • will be transmitted solely to students officially enrolled in the course for which the transmission is made or officers or employees of governmental bodies as a part of their official duties or employment,

and your use is:

  • performing a nondramatic literary work (e.g., reading a short story aloud);
  • performing a nondramatic musical work (e.g., singing a song);
  • performing a reasonable and limited amount of any other work (e.g., playing an excerpt from a movie); or
  • displaying any work in an amount comparable to what would be used in a live classroom,

and your institution

  • institutes a copyright policy;
  • provides information about copyright to faculty, students, and relevant staff members;
  • provides notice to students that materials used in connection with the course may be subject to copyright protection; and
  • if the transmission is digital, applies the required technological measures,

then US copyright law permits your use.

This provision, which is sometimes called the TEACH Act, is codified at 17 U.S.C. § 110(2).

Am I allowed to post this work on my course website?

University of Michigan policy allows instructors to make their own decisions about posting materials on course websites, such as Canvas sites. In some cases, fair use and other user’s rights permit you to post material on your course website. In others, it is necessary to obtain permission. For more information about copyright and course websites, please consult our guide, Copyright & Course Websites.

Am I allowed to use this video in my teaching?

Many of the user’s rights in the US Copyright Act, including fair use, apply to some uses of video in teaching. For copyright information specific to the use of video, please see our guide, Copyright and Using Video.

Am I allowed to use this work I found on a website?

Placing a work on a website does not change its copyright status. If you would like to use a work you have found online, you need to consider whether it is protected by copyright, whether your use would implicate the rights of the copyright holder, and whether any user’s rights entitle you to make your use.

If a work is published online with a statement that it is in the public domain or that it is licensed under a public license, such as a Creative Commons license, you will need to assess the credibility of that information and decide whether or not to rely on it.

Am I allowed to use this work I created?

If you are the sole author of the work, you can do what you like with it, so long as you have not transferred away all or part of your copyright (e.g., in a publishing agreement). If you are a joint author, the same is true, but you owe your coauthors a share of any profits from the uses you authorize. If you created the work within the scope of your employment or under a work for hire contract, you are not author for the purposes of copyright. You can ask your employer or the entity you contracted with for permission to use the work. For more information, see Works Made for Hire on the Who Holds Copyright page of this guide.

If you have transferred away all or part of your copyright, the transfer agreement will tell you what rights you have left. This is one reason it is important to keep copies of your publishing agreements and other contracts.

Even if you are not the rightsholder, you may still be able to use the work under a user’s right, such as fair use. If you use you want to make is not a fair use, you will need to ask for permission.

Who holds copyright in a work created by a student?

Students hold the copyright to the works they create, including their papers, projects, theses, and dissertations. Copyright in works created by student employees acting within the scope of their employment belongs to their employers.

What does it mean if a work is licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that created a set of simple 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 use by others. Creative Commons licenses do two things: They allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find works they already have permission to use. To take advantage of the permission granted in the license, you must obey the conditions of the license. For instance, all of the Creative Commons licenses require that you provide attribution to the work’s author when you use the work. For more information, consult our guide on Creative Commons licenses or visit the Creative Commons website.

What can I do if the use I want to make is not permitted by a user's right?

If you have determined that the use you want to make is not a fair use and is not permitted by any of the other user rights, 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 you give me permission to use this?

When the University of Michigan holds copyright in a work, university policy dictates that “the University units most closely associated with the creation of [that work] may authorize uses of [it].” In an exception to this general rule, Innovation Partnerships controls uses of certain software as well as deliverables funded by sponsored activity agreements.

Thus, to obtain permission to use a work whose copyright is held by the University of Michigan, you will need to determine what unit is most closely associated with the creation of the work you want to use. Then, you will need to find a contact person within that unit. The work itself, the university website, and the university directory are likely to be the most helpful tools for this search.

For permission to use works published by the University of Michigan Press, please send permissions requests according to the directions on its website.