Learn About Copyright

Copyright Guidelines

The copyright clause of the Constitution gives Congress the power to grant authors exclusive rights to their writings in order to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts” (article 1, section 8, clause 8).


The primary purpose of copyright is to foster the dissemination of intellectual works for the public welfare. Giving authors exclusive rights to their works for a limited period of time is seen as a way of rewarding them for their contribution to society.

U. S. copyright law is found in the Copyright Act, Title 17 of the US Code. These exclusive rights set forth in section 106 of Title 17 include the rights to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce copies of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public
  • Create derivative works based on the work
  • Perform the work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audio¨ visual works. In the case of sound recordings to do so by digital transmission
  • Display the work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audio¨ visual work.

Copyright does NOT apply to the following:

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Processes or procedures
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Systems or methods of operation
  • Discoveries

For more on copyright read: United States Copyright Office. (2014). Reproduction of copyright works by educators and librarians: Circular 21. Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/ (PDF)

Fair Use

One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

The distinction between “fair use” of a copyrighted work and infringement can be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission if permission is necessary. For more in depth explanations including court rulings, see: Columbia University Libraries/Information Services Copyright Advisory Office.

Bank Street Library’s Fair Use Checklist (pdf) may be used as a tool in weighing the four factors.

Public Domain

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include the following:

  • The term of copyright for the work has expired (see Copyright Slider link below);
  • The author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright (see Copyright Slider link below),
  • The work is a work of the U.S. Federal Government or
  • The work has been assigned by the copyright holder to the public domain.

The Copyright Slider provides details about when items first printed in the United States pass into the public domain.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing and innovation.  The Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional all rights reserved setting that copyright law creates. These tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.