Being a responsible digital citizen means respecting the intellectual property rights of others. As you engage with various forms of media in your academic journey, understanding the basics of copyright compliance will help you navigate potential pitfalls and uphold academic integrity.
This guide is intended to provide foundational information for SJR State students. The information presented in this guide is intended only for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice.
As defined by the U.S. Copyright Office, "Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression." Content creators, termed "authors" in this definition, are often referred to as copyright "owners" or "holders" as well. The terms are used interchangeably in this guide.
Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution. Simply put, when you create an original work—be it a poem, a photograph, a song, or a piece of software—you have the exclusive right to use, copy, and distribute that work, generally for a limited period of time. These rights are not absolute and are subject to limitations and exceptions, most notably the doctrine of "fair use," which we will delve into later.
The primary rationale behind copyright law is twofold:
Economic Incentive: By providing exclusive rights, copyright law aims to incentivize creators to produce works that contribute to societal advancement. The idea is that creators will be more likely to invest time and resources into creating new works if they can control and profit from them.
Promotion of Learning and Cultural Enrichment: While providing protections to creators, copyright law also aims to enrich society by promoting the dissemination of works for public consumption, hence exceptions like "fair use" exist.
Copyright law applies to a broad spectrum of creative works, including:
Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works
Software: Computer programs and applications
It's crucial to note that copyright does not protect ideas, facts, or methods, but rather the unique expression of those ideas. For example, you can't copyright the idea for a time-travel novel, but the specific text you write—your unique expression of that idea—is copyrightable.
As the U.S. Copyright Office explains, "Copyright is originality and fixation:"
Works are original when they are independently created by a human author and have a minimal degree of creativity. Independent creation simply means that you create it yourself, without copying. The Supreme Court has said that, to be creative, a work must have a “spark” and “modicum” of creativity. There are some things, however, that are not creative, like: titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; and mere listings of ingredients or contents. And always keep in mind that copyright protects expression, and never ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries.
A work is fixed when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. For example, a work is fixed when you write it down or record it.
What type of protection does copyright grant the owner? The U.S. Copyright Office states, "U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with the following exclusive rights:
Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending.
Perform the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
Display the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. This right also applies to the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission if the work is a sound recording.
Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations."
U.S. copyright law has evolved considerably, with significant amendments and overhauls reflecting changes in technology, international agreements, and societal views on intellectual property. The most recent major update is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which adapted U.S. copyright law to the challenges and opportunities posed by digital technology. Let's look at that next.