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Copyright @ UW-River Falls

Have questions about copyright? Check out this guide.


The information on this page is adapted from Copyright Basics, U.S. Copyright Office Circular 1, August 2010 and updates from the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act.

Limitations on the Scope of Copyright Protection

Anyone who violates any of the rights provided by the copyright law may be held civilly or criminally liable. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. Two important exemptions from copyright liability for educators are the fair use exemption established by section 107, title 17, U.S. Code and the distance education exemption (TEACH Act) established by section 110, title 17, U.S. Code. The fair use exemption outlines certain situations for which the reproduction of a particular work is considered “fair,” and the distance education exemption outlines situations in which instructors in nonprofit educational institutions may transmit online non-dramatic written works and portions of dramatic works such as movies.

Copyright Protections

Copyright provides certain forms of protection to authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. It is based on federal law (title 17, U.S. Code), and gives to the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work (examples include such things as translations, musical arrangements, motion picture versions, art reproductions, sound recordings, or any other form in which a work is recast or adapted);
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted 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 audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Types of Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The following categories are included:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

The following works are not protected by copyright:

  • works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, an improvisational speech that has not been written or recorded)
  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • familiar symbols or designs
  • listings of ingredients such as recipes
  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices
  • information that is common property such as calendars, height and weight charts, rulers

Notice of Copyright

Since 1989, works no longer need to carry notice of copyright (such as the letter c in a circle) in order to be protected. Copyright is secured automatically when a work is created. Works are created when they are fixed in a medium such as a book, manuscript, videotape, sheet music, or CD. Digital works created on the internet are copyrighted automatically as well.

Duration of Copyright and Materials in the Public Domain


How long copyright lasts can be a complicated issue, but “life +70 years” applies in many situations. Consult this table to learn more about when works pass into the public domain.

The copyright slider produced by the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy is another useful tool for determining whether or not a work is in the public domain.