What are Copyright, Public Domain, and the Fair Use Doctrine

Posted: October 11th, 2007 under Copyright Law Information, Fair Use Doctrine, Public Domain.

What is copyright?
According to the United States Copyright Office, Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.

NEARLY EVERY FORM OF WORK commonly used in a classroom – books, periodicals, essays, monographs, music, videos, photographs, websites, and more – is subject to copyright protection. A copyright doesn’t protect the work itself; rather, it protects the rights that belong to whoever controls the copyright in that work. The holder of a copyright in a particular work has the exclusive right to determine who may reproduce all or part of the work, distribute copies of it, prepare derivative versions of it, and perform or display the work. The law gives a copyright holder permission to enforce against unauthorized reproduction or distribution of the copyrighted work. This affords the copyright holder the right to sue – and collect monetary damages from – a person or institution that violates the copyright.

Lawsuits by authors and publishers against individuals – and even educational institutions – over copyright violations are not uncommon.

What is Public Domain?
Public domain means that the creator of the work has given up or lost all rights to the work. It means that you may do anything with the work that you want – read it, copy it, publish it, change it. Public domain doesn’t mean a work is owned by no one; it means it is owned by everyone.

When does a work pass into the Public Domain?
This is a simple question with a very complicated answer. It starts off simple- Anything published before 1923 is now in the public domain. After that it gets complicated. It can depend on whether is was originally published with a copyright notice, whether the copyright was renewed, etc.

Here is a chart that details when works pass into the public domain.

What is the Fair Use Doctrine?
The Fair Use Doctrine, allows limited circumstances under which a copyrighted work may be reproduced without the copyright holder’s express permission.

Under the Fair Use Doctrine, all of the following four factors must be considered together when determining whether or not a copyrighted work may be reproduced without permission from the copyright holder:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial or for non-profit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion to be reproduced in relation to the work as a whole; and
  4. The cumulative effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

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