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What is Copyright?


The Congress shall have power...

...To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8


U.S. Copyright law is contained under Title 17 of the U.S. Code. Under the law, the author/creator of an origial work is given certain exclusive rights to the use of that work. These include the rights of reproduction, derivation, distribution, performance and display. These rights can be held jointly in the case of joint authorship. They can also be transferred -- in whole or part -- to a third party, such as a publisher.

Copyright covers many different types of works including literary works, works of art, audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works. To receive copyright protection the work must be fixed in a tangible format such as print or a machine readable file. The works do not have to be registered with the Copyright Office to gain protection and works created since March 1989 do not need to have a copyright symbol. to be covered.

Some types of materials are not covered by copyright. Federal Government publications are copyright free, although they may contain copyrighted materials as part of the contents. Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form - such as an extemporaneous speech or performance that is not recorded. Works that aren't original authorship -- such as calendars, common phrases, names, etc. Also, copyright does not protect ideas, but only the expression of those ideas.

Title 17 recognizes certain limitations to the exclusive rights of copyright holders including certain instances of reproduction by libaries and archives (Sect. 108), ransfer of particular copy or phonorecord (Sect 109), certain performances and displays (Sect 110), secondary transmissions of broadcast programming by cable (Sect. 111), ephemereal recordings (Sect. 112), and Fair Use (Sect 107). More information about these limitations can be found in Title 17.


U.S. Copyright Office Publications




How Long Does Copyright Last?

The length of copyright protection has changed several times since the Copyright Act of 1790. which provided for a total (at most) of 28 years of protection. The length of protection today depends on the type of item, date of publication and/or registration, status of extensions, and adherence to the specifics of the law. With that in mind, any item created before 1923 can be considered in the public domain and works created after 1977 have protection for the author's life plus seventy years. For cases between these extremes you can view Circular 15a from the U.S. Copyrigh Office. There is also a handy chart available at the Copyright Information Center at Cornell University. (Links are below.)

If you would like to try to research the copyright status of an item see the Copyright Office Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work.

More Information

U.S. Copyright Office Publications:

Other Useful Links

Copyright Term Calculator. Public Domain Sherpa.

Hirtle, Peter. Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Cornell University Library.

Using Copyrighted Materials

Copyright law does recognize some limits to the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders. These limits are outline in Title 17, sections 101 to 112 and include fair use, library and archives reproduction, right of first sale, as well as certain performance and dsiplay rights. Fair Use (section 107) is frequently used in educational environmnts but what is it?

First, fair use is a legal defense. Only the courts can decide if a particular use of a copyrighted item comes under section 107. The court uses four tests in its determination:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work; [creative, informational, educational]

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Note that all four tests are considered by the courts when hearing a fair use defense. Also, an educational or non-profit use of copyrighted material is not automatically considered fair use.

There are tools available to help you decide if the use of a copyrighted work may be fair use. Thinking through Fair Use, from the University of Minnesota Libraries, and the Fair Use Evaluator, from the American Library Association, can both help you analyze your situation and decide if fair use might apply in your case. Also the Summaries of Fair Use Cases page at the Libraries at Stanford University provide a short explanation of the outcome of various court cases which tested fair use.

More Information:

17 U.S.C. § 107

U.S. Copyright Office Publications

USF Related Documents

The University of South Florida has published policies in place regarding use and ownership of copyright materials.


USF System Policy 0-105: Copyrighted Materials -- Use and General Principles

Official USF policy covering the use of copyrighted materials by USF personnel.

USF System Policy 0-300: Inventions and Works

Official USF policy covering ownership of intellectual property in copyrighted works and inventions.

USF - UFF Collective Bargaining Agreement 2014-2017

Arcticle 18 provides information about faculty ownership of intellectual property in inventions and works.

Best Practices

Several organizations have published "Best Practices" documents on fair use for their areas of interest. A list of some of the more useful ones to education is inlcuded here. For a more comprehensive list of these materials go to the Center for Media and Social Impact site