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Digital Commons & Expert Gallery Suite: Copyright Basics

A guide to Digital Commons at Molloy.

What is Copyright

Copyright is a legal protection extended to the creators of original works meant to ensure their right to be compensated under certain circumstances as well as providing an incentive to share their works and to grant others the right to use their works in certain ways. Whenever copyrighted works are used in the process of either teaching and research, These uses may conflict in some way with the copyright owner's exclusive rights. Specific rights are granted to copyright holders by the U.S. Copyright Act under title 17 of the U.S. Copyright Code. However, there are certain exemptions in this act granted to non-profit educational users where permission is not necessary as long as actions such as reproduction and distribution of copies are specifically for the purpose of teaching or research.

These are recommended resources from the Copyright Clearance Center and the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright Ownership

Copyright protection attaches automatically the moment a qualifying work is created. Copyright law provides owners a number of exclusive rights that includes the rights to make copies; distribute copies, sell, rent, lend or give works away, to make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretation, or to perform or display the work publicly. Copyright owners hold specific rights that include:

  • Reproduction of works
  • Distribution of copies
  • Production of derivative works
  • Public display
  • Public performance
  • Public performance via digital audio transmission

More information is available at Exclusive Rights in Copyrighted Works  U.S. Copyright Code, 17 U.S.C. § 106, through the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, Law School.

Duration of Copyright

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors including whether it was ever published and the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright term lasts for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.

To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 (Duration of Copyright) of the Copyright Law of the United States as contained in Tıtle 17 of the United States Code, Dec 2011. More information can be found in the following website: When U.S.Works Pass Into the Public Domain by Lolly Gasaway.

What is Protected by Copyright?

Copyright law applies to nearly all creative and intellectual works available in both traditional media (books, DVDs, CDs, etc.) and digital media (electronic journals, web sites, etc.)format.

Copyright protects most creative works but to qualify for copyright protection, a work must satisfy two requirements: it must be original, and it must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression". In order for a work to be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression", it must be recorded using some form of physical medium, whether it is on paper, canvas, or computer disk.

Copyright protects the following list of creative works:

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

The scope of copyright in general is covered in 17 USC §102 and derivative works are covered in §103. Works created or published outside the United States are covered by §104 and §104a.

More information is available from the U.S. Copyright Office: What Does Copyright Protect?

What is not Protected by Copyright?

Copyright law does not apply to works in the public domain or to works that do not qualify for copyright protection, as stated in the Section 102 of the Copyright Act. These include:

  • ideas, concepts, discoveries, theories, and hypotheses
  • procedures, processes, system, methods of operation
  • scientific principles, theorems, mathematical formulae, laws of nature
  • facts, information, data, know-how
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans, common symbols, lettering, slight variations of typographic ornamentation, design, or listings of ingredients or contents.

More information about work not protected by copyright is available from the U.S. Copyright Office: