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Copyright: Copyright Basics


This guide presents an overview of copyright law with an emphasis on the ways it might pertain to the work of Gettysburg College students, staff, and faculty.

Members of Musselman Library's Copyright Committee prepared this guide based on their collective interpretation of and experience with copyright, fair use, and other intellectual property issues; however, they are not lawyers.

The information contained here is not legal advice, and consulting this guide is not a substitute for speaking with legal counsel.

Copyright registration

black and white copyright symbol

"Copyright Symbols" by Mike Seyfang is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Even if you don't see a copyright symbol on something it might still be protected by copyright law.

You do not need to register a copyright to receive copyright protection. Under U.S. law, any original work is protected "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."

Patents and trademarks

Patents and trademarks, like copyright, are forms of "intellectual property."

A patent gives the inventor(s) of a utilitarian device (e.g. a tool) or process (e.g. a chemical formula) the exclusive right to duplicate that invention's design. Anyone seeking a patent must submit their design and detail what makes it unique.

A trademark is a word, phrase, or symbol (e.g. a logo) identifying a product, service, person, or company. Registering a trademark prevents others from using the mark without permission or from creating a similar mark meant to confuse the public.

What is copyright?

Copyright provides the creators of original works of authorship with a set of exclusive rights to copy, distribute, and perform their works for a limited period of time. The U.S. copyright law attempts to balance the private interests of copyright owners with the public interest in the spread of information

Though having undergone major revisions, notably in 1909 and 1976, the U.S. copyright law endures today and continues to apply to works fixed in any tangible medium of expression. Many of the law's provisions are limited in certain circumstances and the educational environment is one of the most confusing areas where copyright can be applied.

Initial ownership of copyright generally belongs to the author(s) or creator(s). The term "copyright" really refers to a bundle of six exclusive rights conferred on the owner. These include the rights to:

  • reproduce a work
  • create derivative works based on the original
  • distribute reproductions
  • perform the work
  • display the work
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission (e.g., webcasting)

Essentially, it is illegal for someone other than the copyright owner to exercise these rights without first securing permission, although there are limitations and exceptions intentionally written into the law.

What gets protected by copyright?

Section 102 of the copyright law affords protection to "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."

"Original works" are generally considered to fall into one of eight categories:

  • 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

Copyright protection does not extend to "any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery" that may be included in a protected work. Only the expression is protected, not the information analyzed or the ideas expressed. Some common examples of content not protected by U.S. copyright law include titles, facts, and professional works produced by federal government employees.

Common copyright law exceptions

Chapter 1, Sections 107-122 of the US Copyright Law establish exceptions to and limitations on the six basic exclusive rights of copyright owners. The following exceptions are usually the most relevant to education:

  • Fair Use. Based on a four-factor analysis, enables the use of portions of copyrighted works in teaching and in the creation of new works
  • Libraries and Archives. Ensures that public and scholarly libraries retain access to copyrighted works for non-commercial purposes
  • First Sale. Permits the owner of a copy of a copyrighted work to resell, lend, or donate that copy
  • Face-to-Face Teaching. Gives instructors and students some freedom to display or present copyrighted material as part of an in-person teaching activity at a nonprofit educational institution

How long do copyright protections last?

A work created today would remain protected by copyright law until 70 years after the death of the author or creator. If the work has a corporate author then the protection would last until 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is shorter.

When copyright protections expire, the work becomes part of the public domain and is free to use by anyone. You can learn more about the public domain by using the tab above.