Copyright can seem confusing or frustrating, especially if you're the one trying to use a copyrighted work. However, copyright plays an important role in our society by encouraging innovation and creativity.
Copyright serves two purposes:
1) to incentivize creativity and innovation
2) to allow the fruits of creativity and innovation to be enjoyed by society
It does this by giving creators exclusive rights to their work, during which they can make money off the work and present it as their own. Then, after a set period of time, those exclusive rights are no longer only granted to the author; everyone can use the work to create new works and learn from that work, benefiting society as a whole.
According to United States Code, copyright is “the right of authors to control the use of their work for a limited period of time.”
The exclusive rights which Congress grants under the copyright are:
To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original, and it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The law lists eight media of expression which are included, but the list is not meant to be exhaustive:
A work is copyrighted if it is original and fixed in a tangible form. Works no longer must be registered and fixed with a copyright symbol to be protected. An original work fixed in a tangible medium is automatically protected by copyright.
Works which are not original, or which are not tangibly fixed, are not protected. The law also identifies several classes of material which are not subject to copyright protection:
Works created by employees of the United States federal government in the course of their employment are also not protected by copyright. Once a work's copyright term has ended, that work is no longer protected by copyright and enters the public domain (see the Public Domain tab).
How long does copyright last? It depends! Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. If the author is a corporation then the protection is for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.
Works created and published prior to 1978 may be protected for different lengths of time. See the Copyright Term Tool developed by Cornell University for more information. Generally, works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.
Public Domain encompasses “all works that never had copyright protection and works that no longer have copyright protection” (Purdue University Copyright Office). All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. All works in the public domain are free for the public to use.
Some examples of public domain material include:
Keep in mind: works that are not protected by copyright may still be protected by other intellectual property laws like trademark and patents. See the video below for information about the difference between these intellectual property laws.
Copyright, while very important for protecting intellectual property, can pose some barriers to educators who want to share their work freely without being asked permission for use of their work on a frequent basis by other educators. Creative Commons licenses, rather than replacing copyright, layer over the top of copyright and allow the creator to give up some of their copyrights. There are four parts to a CC license, and they can be combined in almost any combination.
CC-BY - Attribution: User can use, share, and remix your work as long as he/she attributes it to you.
CC-BY SA - Share Alike: User can use, share, and remix your work as long as he/she attributes it to you and shares the derivative work you make with the same CC license you used.
CC-BY NC - Non-Commercial: User can use, share, and remix your work as long as he/she attributes it to you and does not make money off of it.
CC-BY ND - No Derivatives: User can use and share your work as long as he/she attributes it to you and does not change it.
It is commonly accepted in the open education community that only those materials that allow for remixing (unlike the CC-BY ND license) can be considered open educational resources. However, the use of any of these licenses can be very helpful for other educators hoping to use your work in the classroom.