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Copyright Guidelines : Home

This page gives a brief overview of copyright law.

Copyright: An Overview


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. "Copyright" literally means the exclusive right to make copies of a work. from Talab, R. S. (1999). Commonsense copyright: a guide for educators and librarians. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

 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:



 ■Processes or procedures



 ■Systems or methods of operation


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 any help, a good reference is

 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

 ■The author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright

 ■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.

 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.

For more information about copyright, please see HCCC Library’s collection, including: Copyright for teachers and librarians in the 21st century, by Rebecca Butler, Neal-Schuman, Publishers, 2011, call number: KF2995.B885

This copyright summary was written by Kristin Freda, Bank Street College of Education, and is reprinted here with her permission.


Books on Copyright at HCCC Library