The content on this page is based on Wallace Center staff's interpretation of copyright law and institutional policies and is intended for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, nor university policy.
Determining Copyright Status
Copyright law protects many different types of works including literary works; musical works; dramatic works; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works. It does not protect names, titles, and slogans (though these may be protected by trademarks). Works must also exist in a fixed and tangible format – ideas that have not yet been created are not protected by copyright, though they may be protected by patents. Copyright protection for items published prior to 1923 has expired – these works are now considered to be in the public domain and are no longer protected by copyright.
The length of time an item is protected by copyright varies depending on when it was originally published. The American Library Association provides several simple-to-use online tools designed to help you determine the copyright status of published material such as the Digital Copyright Slider (Requires Flash).
If you are not certain when an item was first copyrighted, the U.S. Copyright Office Public Catalog is a good place to start. If the item was published prior to 1978, the Online Books Page maintains digital copies of copyright records from 1789-1978.
Depending on the year an item was published, the copyright renewal date might also be important. Stanford University Libraries maintains a database of Copyright Renewals from 1923-1963.
For questions regarding the use of images or photographs that may be under copyright protection, consult the Digital Image Rights Computator from the Visual Resources Association.
Determining how to appropriately use other media, such as online videos, constitutes a Fair Use decision. You may consult the many resources of the Center for Media and Social Impact to guide you through these decisions.
Using Copyrighted Works
If an item is protected by copyright, you have several options if you still wish to use the work:
Contact the Copyright Holder
When trying to determine whom you should contact for permission to use a copyrighted work, the claim filed with the U.S. Copyright Office can be a good place to start – you can search these records via the U.S. Copyright Office Public Catalog (1978-present) and the Online Books Page (1789-1978) as mentioned above. Often the publisher for a work is the best point of contact as publishers typically negotiate licensing agreements on the author's or artist's behalf.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin maintains a database of contact information for copyright holders including writers, artists, and other prominent individuals: Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders (WATCH). Here you will be searching for the name of a particular copyright holder rather than the title of the work itself.
If you are trying to determine the copyright holder for a particular song, the ASCAP ACE Repertory is a good source. Music and performances can be tricky as they may have multiple copyright owners. In the case of a song performance, both the recording and the composition itself may be protected by copyright and often the copyright holder will be two different individuals or entities. If you are looking for permission to perform the composition of a particular song, contacting the publisher may be sufficient; if you are looking to include the recording of a song in a project, the record label is often a good place to start.
Fair Use and the TEACH Act
What is Fair Use?
An important part of copyright law, fair use limits the exclusive rights guaranteed to copyright holders for the purposes of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" (17 U.S.C. § 107). Fair use helps balance the rights of copyright holders with the needs of scholars and is often applicable for class projects.
Fair use is typically applied on a case-by-case basis. The main factors that are taken into account include the purpose of the project (e.g. educational), the portion of the work being copied, and the potential effect on the market for the item being copied. Another way to think about fair use is that your reproduction cannot be created for commercial purposes, serve as a complete substitute for the original work, or negatively effect the original copyright holder's ability to sell or distribute his or her work.
One example of fair use might be including an image in a term paper that only your professor will see for the purpose of commenting on or analyzing the image. Remember, fair use is a legal term specific to copyright law – you still need to provide citations and/or credit lines for the works that you include in class projects!
The American Library Association publishes a Fair Use Evaluator that can assist you in making a fair use evaluation.
What is the TEACH Act?
In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act. This law provides exceptions to the existing U.S Copyright Code for educational use of certain copyrighted material. The academic community has devised guidelines based on the TEACH Act for reproduction of copyrighted material for use in the classroom and as instructional material for use in courses. According to Stanford University Libraries' Copyright and Fair Use website, the guidelines "are similar to a treaty that has been adopted by copyright holders and academics."
Fair Use and the TEACH Act at RIT
The TEACH Act and the widely agreed upon guidelines stemming from it have informed the RIT Libraries Electronic Reserve Policy. Please consult this policy before choosing electronic/digital content to put on course reserve for your course. TEACH Act exceptions are also written into RIT’s official institute policy on copyright.
Duke University Libraries' Scholarly Communication Department offers this flowchart, informed by the TEACH Act and its guidelines, answering the question "Can this be digitized for use in my course?" Please consult this flowchart if you are considering digitizing or reproducing electronic/digital content for use in your course. If you still have questions about what is and is not acceptable, please contact your college liaison librarian.
Creative Commons Licenses
Creative Commons licenses give copyright holders a way to easily allow others to share and reproduce a work without explicit permission. Anyone can assign a Creative Commons license to his or her original works. Some sites such as Flickr and YouTube allow content creators to assign Creative Commons licenses as part of the upload process. The Creative Commons Search page allows you to search a variety of sites for images, music, and other media that have Creative Commons licenses assigned to them.
Good Faith Effort
In 2010, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) observed that due to copyright law and compliance, "the digital age has induced still more caution, creating the ironic situation where, just when users ought to be getting improved access, they're not even getting as good access as they could through interlibrary loan, in-person visits, and analog copying. The result constrains research and limits what should be entering the scholarly record."
As a result, a community of practice was formed around digitizing collections via a document titled, Well-intentioned Practice for Putting Digitized Collections of Unpublished Materials Online. Institutions are encouraged to offer a liberal takedown policy and make a good faith effort to track down the copyright holder to the best of their ability.
- Sample Statement: Statements on Copyright Restrictions, Seely G. Mudd Manuscript Library (Princeton University), 2010
Copyright law can be confusing especially if you are not used to working with legislative statutes. While it may be easy to reproduce a copyrighted work, copyright infringement is a serious crime that can result in financial penalties up to $250,000 and jail time up to 5 years for the first offense (USAM (2017))
Your librarian can be a good starting point for copyright questions, but for legal advice your best option is to contact an attorney or legal professional who specializes in intellectual property.