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Copyright and Fair Use: Copyright Basics

This guide examines fair use in education and research, creating and using instructional materials, and the use of film and video in a classroom.

The Constitutional Provision Respecting Copyright

"The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  --United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8.

The framers of the constitution intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression AND to promote scientific discovery, recognizing that creativity and exploration rely on and build upon collaboration.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code) to authors. The owner of copyright has the exclusive right to do and authorize the following:

  • To reproduce the work;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To prohibit other persons from using the work without permission;
  • To perform the work publicly.

Copyright protection covers both published and unpublished works as well as out-of-print materials. 

Facts, ideas, procedures, processes, systems, concepts, principles or discoveries cannot be copyrighted.  However, some of these can be protected by patent or trade secret laws.

Copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.  If there is more than one author copyright protection lasts for the life of the last author's death plus 70 years.

Click on Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States  for more information. The Digital Slider is also a useful tool to assess copyrighted materials that are now in public domain.

The guide does not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.  

Copyright FAQs