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Expanded Copyright (self-paced course)

Self-paced course for faculty and staff to learn the aspects of copyright law that affect higher education. It's intense - if you want something lighter, please go to the Intro to Copyright videos on Learnscape.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property. It applies to things that are expressed in words and various art forms. 

Copyright is recognized worldwide, and is controlled by US federal law, the national law of other countries, and international law and treaties. Copyright violations are treated as both a criminal matter (fines, jail time) and a civil matter (law suits.) 

What rights/restrictions does copyright entail?

Copyright protects:

  • The exclusive right to make copies (physical or digital)
  • The exclusive right to distribute copies (for money or not)
  • The exclusive right to make derivative works (sequels, spin-offs, supplemental materials, translations, adaptations, changes in format)
  • The exclusive right to distribute derivative works
  • The exclusive right to license others to make or distribute copies or derivative works under specific conditions, and to make money from that
  • The exclusive right to transfer the copyright to some other person or entity for money or other considerations (this often happens when a work is published)

When a rightsholder that is a person dies, the copyright passes on to their heirs. When a rightsholder that is an organization dies, the copyright is one of the assets that is disposed of. In this way, copyright is treated something like real estate. 

What Copyright is NOT

Copyright is distinct from patents, trademarks, trade secrets, plagiarism, and moral rights to the integrity of a work.

Other forms of intellectual property: 

  • Patents are a form of intellectual property that applies to how to perform a process, make a physical object, or make a piece of software.
  • Trademarks are a form of intellectual property that applies to designs and phrases that are socially recognized and associated with an entity like a brand or organization. 
  • Trade secrets are facts and processes that an entity is permitted to protect and not disclose in order to protect uniqueness and value. 

Copyright v. Plagiarism

It is important to distinguish issues of copyright infringement from issues of plagiarism. In an academic environment, we are attuned to the notion of giving credit through proper citations, and to making sure that whatever we put out is sufficiently original. This is crucial for academic integrity, but does nothing to protect against allegations of copyright infringement. 

Copyright does NOT protect:

  • The ideas or facts contained in a work
  • Works that bear a resemblance but do not copy specific creative elements. For example, plots can't be copyrighted, but characters and settings can. 

If you copy facts and ideas, or imitate art too closely, without giving credit or without putting enough of your own knowledge and creativity into your work, then you are guilty of plagiarism, but not copyright violation! 

Copyright v. Integrity of the Work

It's also important to talk about moral rights to the integrity of the work, which are part of copyright law in some other jurisdictions, but are not part of U.S. federal copyright law. In a country where copyright protects moral rights, the owner of the copyright has some say in how the content can be used, so that it can not be used in a way that would reflect poorly on the original material or its creator. For example, if a reviewer wrote a negative review of a play and the producers of the play snipped out a positive-sounding phrase and put it on their advertising materials, that could be construed as a violation of the rightsholder's moral rights. As long as it otherwise fits under Fair Use, that would be legal in the U.S., although it wouldn't be ethical. Moral rights become relevant under copyright law only if they affect the rightsholder's economic rights. 

What kinds of works can be copyrighted?

In order to be copyrighted, a work must be:

  • A work of original authorship. That means that someone (or ones) created it. It didn't exist in nature or spontaneously emerge. And it has to involve some tiny element of creativity. A mere list or a "slavish copy" of something found cannot be copyrighted. 
  • Fixed in a tangible medium of expression. You can't just speak it or dance it and consider it copyrighted. Good thing Homer lived before modern copyright law! The work of original authorship needs to be set down or recorded in some way. Written, sculpted, painted, recorded, whatever. What about short-lived media of expression like skywriting? That is up in the air (Ha ha.) But the general tendency of the courts is to be very lenient about what kind of medium of expression is used. If a colleague draws a brilliant diagram on the dry erase board during a meeting, that diagram has become copyrighted. It's just that enforcement is difficult without the medium of expression to show for it.

When does copyright take effect?

The only thing that needs to happen is that that work of original authorship gets fixed in that tangible medium of expression. It's copyrighted as soon as it's written down, drawn, recorded, whatever. 

  • Does it need to be published? NO!
  • Does it need to be shared with anyone? NO! All you shy poets are protected. The mere physical object containing the work is all it takes.
  • Does it need to be submitted to the Library of Congress? NO! How about the U.S. Copyright Office? NO!

There is a way to register a copyright, and it's necessary to do that to defend a copyright in court. That will be discussed in the Your Copyright section.