Copyright Basics

Copyright Resources for Online Teaching

The following resources may be particularly useful for any instructors moving their instruction online:

  • Public Statement of Library Copyright Specialists: Fair Use & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research - Google Doc developed by leading copyright experts at U.S. colleges and universities, addressing fair use during the COVID-19 public health crisis. From the statement (emphasis added): 
    • It is evident that making materials available and accessible to students in this time of crisis will almost always be a fair use. As long as we are being thoughtful in our analysis and limiting our activities to the specific needs of our patrons during this time of crisis, copyright law supports our uses. The fair use doctrine accommodates the flexibility required by our shared public health crisis, enabling society to function and progress while protecting human life and safety. 

    • This statement has no official legal authority, but represents the considered analysis of 37 lawyers and librarians experienced in copyright and fair use for higher education.

  • Overview of Copyright for Online Courses - downloadable Word document originally developed by a copyright librarian and lawyer at the University of Minnesota, Nancy Sims. Lightly adapted with links and details specific to GVSU. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.
  • Resources on Copyright & Emergency Remote Teaching and Research - Google Doc with a growing collection of links and resources assembled by leading copyright experts at U.S. colleges and universities.

The Rights Copyright Gives

A copyright owner has the rights to do the following things, under U.S. copyright law:

  • Make copies of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work (by selling, renting, lending, or giving it away)
  • Perform or display the work publicly
  • Make derivative works, like translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations

A copyright owner can give away some or all of those rights to other people or entities, by transferring ownership or granting licenses. Ownership or license rights can be shared by any number of people or entities.  

(17 U.S.C. § 106)

What Copyright Protects

The copyright rights outlined above only apply to works that fit into one of these eight categories: 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)

  • literary works
  • musical works, including accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

Works that fit into one of the categories above must also be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression”—that is, saved in some form—in order to qualify for copyright protection. Almost anything counts as “fixed”—a drawing on a chalkboard or whiteboard, or a file saved in a computer’s memory would qualify. However, unfixed works such as improvisational speeches or music aren’t protected by copyright.

A work also must include original creative expression to qualify for protection. The amount of originality required is relatively low, but just “sweat of the brow” is not enough. For example, writing out an alphabetical list of all Nobel Prize winners may take work, but it doesn’t really contain any original expression. By contrast, if you add annotations and commentary to that list, you could own a copyright in the annotations and commentary.

What Copyright Doesn't Protect

Copyright does not apply to: 17 U.S.C. § 102(b)

  • Procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation. These may qualify for protection and ownership under patent law, and patent and copyright do not usually overlap.
  • Ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries. Broadly speaking, these are not ownable under any form of U.S. intellectual property law. 
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents (32 CFR § 202.1) These are considered to fail the requirement of originality.
  • Other unoriginal or unfixed works


More info on what copyright doesn’t do, from the U.S. Copyright Office:

How to Get Copyright

Creators today don’t have to do anything to get copyright in the content they create.  Any work that qualifies is automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is first "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - recorded in some physical or digital format.  Publication is not a requirement for copyright protection, and even formal registration is purely optional. There is also no requirement to include a copyright notice, date, the “circled c” © symbol, or any other information on the work in order to own a copyright.

Copyrights can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office by any legal owner, at any time during the term of copyright protection. There is a nominal fee for registration, and a copy of the work must be deposited with the Copyright Office.   Registration is most useful for commercial works and for copyright owners who are likely to pursue legal action against infringement.  More information is available in the Copyright Office FAQ.

How Long Copyrights Last

For works created today, copyright protection starts automatically as soon as a work is created, and lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator.

Because copyright terms have been changed several times, the term lengths for older works vary widely, based on many factors. 

More Information About U.S. Copyright Law

  • Title 17 of U.S. Code
  • Overview of the law from Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute
  • The United States Copyright Office has more detailed information about specific laws and regulations, allows you to search copyright records, view related publications, and stay up to date with changes in copyright law.
  • The Copyright Crash Course from the University of Texas Libraries is an excellent introduction to many facets of copyright in higher education.
  • This Music Copyright video tutorial playlist from the William & Mary Music Library provides short, straightforward explanations of copyright in musical works, which is often more complex than copyright for textual content.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The DMCA updated Title 17 of the U.S. Code to address copyrighted works available in digital formats. This law strengthened the ability of copyright holders to control and restrict access to their work in digital formats, and expanded the ability of libraries to make copies of print resources available for interlibrary loan and for preservation purposes.

  • Summary of the law from the U.S. Copyright Office - PDF
  • American Library Association’s Summary of DMCA

Adapted and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license from the University of Minnesota Libraries.  Any original content produced by the Grand Valley State University Libraries is released under an identical Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

This website presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.

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