Skip to Main Content

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.

Other Topics Related to Copyright

While the rest of this guide focuses on copyright, this page outlines major related topics: prohibitions on the circumvention of technical protection measures and the removal of copyright management information, contracts that impose additional limitations of your use of certain materials, privacy law, and plagiarism.

Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems

Even when copyright law permits your use of a work, it may be illegal to circumvent an access-control technology to make that use.

17 U.S.C. § 1201 prohibits the circumvention of any technological measure that “effectively controls access” to a work that is protected under U.S. copyright law. For instance, it is generally illegal under this provision to circumvent the Content Scramble System that restricts access to in-copyright works on some DVDs. This is known as the anti-circumvention provision of section 1201. Section 1201 also prohibits trafficking in tools that circumvent effective access controls or circumvent controls that protect “a right of the copyright holder under this title.” That is known as the anti-trafficking provision.

Every three years, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office create exemptions to the anti-circumvention provision. The most recent exemptions were issued in 2015. Some other anti-circumvention exceptions are written into the statute, including exceptions for encryption researchers and law enforcement officers.

For information about the current exceptions, please consult the following resources.

Copyright Management Information

Even when copyright law permits your use of a work, it is illegal to remove or alter copyright management information without the authority of the copyright holder or the law, “knowing, or . . . having reasonable grounds to know, that it will induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal an infringement of any right under this title.” The same section of the law, 17 U.S.C. § 1202, outlaws providing false copyright management information and distributing, importing for distribution, or public performing works knowing their copyright management information has been falsified or removed.

The law defines “copyright management information” as:

any of the following information conveyed in connection with copies or phonorecords of a work or performances or displays of a work, including in digital form, except that such term does not include any personally identifying information about a user of a work or of a copy, phonorecord, performance, or display of a work:

  1. The title and other information identifying the work, including the information set forth on a notice of copyright.
  2. The name of, and other identifying information about, the author of a work.
  3. The name of, and other identifying information about, the copyright owner of the work, including the information set forth in a notice of copyright.
  4. With the exception of public performances of works by radio and television broadcast stations, the name of, and other identifying information about, a performer whose performance is fixed in a work other than an audiovisual work.
  5. With the exception of public performances of works by radio and television broadcast stations, in the case of an audiovisual work, the name of, and other identifying information about, a writer, performer, or director who is credited in the audiovisual work.
  6. Terms and conditions for use of the work.
  7. Identifying numbers or symbols referring to such information or links to such information.
  8. Such other information as the Register of Copyrights may prescribe by regulation, except that the Register of Copyrights may not require the provision of any information concerning the user of a copyrighted work.

Contractual Limitations

Sometimes contract law will prevent you from making uses that copyright law would permit. Be aware that you could be limiting your options when you agree to contract terms. Contract may limit your ability to use items you accessed subject to an end user license agreement or a service’s terms of use, such as software or media files. For more information about terms of use, you may wish to consult Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, a project that rates and provides information about website terms of service.

Contract may also limit your ability to use items that your institution or your employer has licensed for your use, such as electronic resources paid for by a research library. It may also limit your ability to use items that you accessed under an agreement governing the use of archival or special collections materials.


Oftentimes, copying and sharing materials implicates privacy law in addition to or instead of copyright. For example, research in many fields (e.g., medicine, sociology, education, and public policy) may include information about individuals that is protected by federal or state privacy law. Even when privacy law does not prohibit sharing certain materials, doing so may still violate ethical norms in your field or commitments you have made to research subjects. As a result, it is important to learn about privacy law and to follow the best practices of your discipline.

For more information about privacy and research data at the University of Michigan, you may wish to consult the website of the Human Research Protection Program. For more information about privacy law in the United States, you may wish to consult the article on privacy in Wex, an online legal dictionary and encyclopedia hosted by Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs release of and access to student records. When works used include student educational information, it's important to consider FERPA before providing access to them. For more information on FERPA, please consult The University of Michigan Student Rights and Student Records.


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.

Resources on Plagiarism

U-M Consent to Photograph or Record

When videotaping or recording individuals for certain purposes it may be appropriate to have them sign a consent form.