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Copyright: The Basics

Topics Covered

"The primary purpose of copyright law is not so much to protect the interests of authors/creators, but rather to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. In other words, to promote knowledge." (Association of Research Libraries)

The Basics of Copyright Law

Copyright law in the United States is rooted in the desire to capture and leverage expressions of new ideas. At the same time, copyright law recognizes that the impetus to create is based on the ability to access already existing expressions of intellectual creativity and use them as platforms upon which we create anew. In addition, copyright law also provides mechanisms that allow us to use existing expressions of ideas to voice opinion, criticism, and dissent.

A New Era in Scholarly Communications

Academic Scholarship is based upon the capacity to create and distribute ideas. Most often these ideas have been captured and recorded, whether as literary works in traditional formats, or with the advent of technologies, in multiple electronic formats, and even as re-contextualized popular content that is examined from a scholarly perspective. How do faculty and students keep abreast of the application of copyright law to these new ways of communicating scholarly content?

Where to Begin

If you have material you wish to use but are unsure of what to do about copyright. Here are some simple steps to help you determine what to do.

1. Determine if you are dealing with a copyrighted work.

Is the work in the public domain? Works in the public domain are no longer protected by copyright. Generally works created prior to 1923 are in the public domain. See the public domain tab to learn how to identify these works.

2. If the work is copyrighted, then you need to pursue these paths.

  • Is the work licensed by the University, in which case the copyright is covered for you?
    • Check the University Library's collection of databases and electronic resources.
    • Check to see if the copyrighted resources you wish to use are licensed by your department.

​If licensed and your use is permitted by that license, proceed as the license permits.

  • If the work is not in the public domain or licensed for use, check to see ff there a legal exemption to copyright law that would allow you to use the work.
    • Section 110 (1) covering classroom performance and display
    • The TEACH Act (Section 110(2)) covering digital transmissions for performance and display
    • The DMCA exemptions
  •  If the work is not in the public domain, licensed or covered by an exemption, you may run a fair use analysis to see if you use is fair.

3. If none of the above allows you to use a copyrighted work, then you must permission to use the work.

Digital Technology/Reference Librarian

Saxony Betts's picture
Saxony Betts
1700 University Avenue Flint, MI 48504
Information Desk: 810-762-9598


This online guide by the American Library Association will help you find out if a work is covered by U.S. copyright and calculate its terms of protection. Make sure to further vet with a copyright specialist if needed.

Page Attributions

This page is an adaption of Copyright Basics, Columbia University Libraries, Copyright Advisory Office, Columbia University licensed this content using the  the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0) with attribution to Dr. Kenneth D Crews (formerly of Columbia University). This license allows materials to be copied and redistributed in any medium or format. Materials may also be remixed and transformed as long as attribution is given. 

This Page is also an adaptation of Let's Copy It Right: A Guide to Copyright for UMKC Educators and Students, UMKC Libraries, UMKC Libraries licensed this content using the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 United States License (CC BY-NC 3.0). This license allows materials to be copied and redistributed in any medium or format. Materials may also be remixed and transformed as long as attribution is given. This license restricts such use to non-commercial purposes.

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