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RETIRED - Copyright: Basics

This web site is intended to provide information and resources for the University of Northern Colorado community on copyright and issues surrounding copyright. The Libraries is continuing to develop the web site as a service to the campus community.

This guide has been retired and replaced.

Please visit the updated Copyright Guide at


What is Copyright?

Copyright provides the creators of original works of authorship with a limited set of exclusive rights to copy, distribute, and perform their works. The law attempts to balance the private interests of copyright owners with the public interest and is intended, in the words of the Constitution:
" promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Though having undergone major revisions, notably in 1909 and 1976, the law endures today and continues to apply to any tangible medium of expression. Many of the law's provisions are limited in certain circumstances and the educational milieu is one of the most confusing areas where copyright can be applied.

The advance of technology offers many opportunities to create, distribute and control copyright protected works. Taking advantage of these opportunities sometimes places the scholarly and education community at odds with commercial interests. Copyright law attempts to balance these competing interests and to assure responsible copyright behavior. Therefore, it is critical that all members of the educational community stay informed about their rights and responsibilities.

Exclusive Rights

Copyright law gives copyright owners the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce a work
  • Prepare derivative works based on the original
  • Distribute copies
  • Perform the work
  • Display the work
  • To perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission, in the case of sound recordings

Essentially, it is illegal for someone other than the copyright owner to exercise these rights, but they are not unlimited. Sections 107 through 122, in chapter 1 of the U.S. Copyright Law, describe limitations on these rights that reveal copyright protections to be a set of grants and controls over original works and not exclusive after all.

Works Protected by Copyright

  • 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 work

Works Not Protected by Copyright

None of the following types of expressions are eligible for copyright protection.

  • titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • certain works produced by government employees
  • works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship

Assignment and Registration

It is not necessary to publish a work or to register a work with the Copyright Office. Copyright protection subsists in an original work of authorship from the time it is created and fixed in tangible form. Registration is not a requirement and can be made anytime within the life of the copyright. There are advantages to timely registration:

  • Registration is required to file an infringement suit in a court.
  • Registration within 3 months of publication or prior to any infringement will make damages and attorney's fees available to the copyright owner in any court action.

Copyright becomes the property of the author who created the original work and in the case of works created by employees within the scope of their employment the employer is considered to be the author. Section 101 of the copyright law defines such work as, "Work made for hire".

Length of Copyright Term

Copyright duration is complex under U.S. Copyright law. In general, published works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for life of the author plus 70 years. In the case of joint authorship copyright protection subsists for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.

Unpublished works and works created before January 1, 1978 present a variety of conditions and circumstances that must be met to qualify for copyright protection. Peter B. Hirtle at Cornell University has created a useful and comprehensive table detailing copyright duration and the public domain.

Copyright Notices

Works published on or after March 1, 1989 do not require a copyright notice to appear on the work. Works published before March 1, 1989 should bear a copyright notice.

The most common form of copyright right is the familiar "C" inside a circle followed by the year in which the work was first fixed in tangible form. For example:
© 2005

Such notices may also display the name of the copyright owner and any prescriptive statement the owner cares to attach to the notice. For example:
© 2005 Betty Jo Points, Permission is hereby granted to copy this work for non-commercial educational purposes.

Using a copyright notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require registration with the Copyright Office.

Exceptions and Limitations

Chapter 1 of the U.S. Copryright Law lists the exclusive rights of copyright holders and the exceptions and limitations to those rights. Section 106 of chapter 1 lists the six exclusive rights copyright owners have regarding their work. The next 15 sections of chapter 1 in the law set forth many exceptions and limitations on those rights. Four of these exceptions are commonly at play in education:

  • Section 107 Fair Use - Probably the most well known exception yet most confusing and controversial. Fair use was codified in the Copyright Act of 1976 and recognizes the public's interest in using copyrighted works to create new works.
  • Section 108 Library Exception - Working in harmony with exceptions like fair use library exceptions assure libraries serving the public and scholarly research communities will have access to copyrighted works for their non-commercial activities.
  • Section 109 Right of First Sale - This exception makes it possible for anyone to redistribute their purchased copy of a copyrighted work by resale, lending or donation. It is one of the foundations on which libraries stand ready to lend materials in their collections to their user communities.
  • Section 110 (2) TEACH Act - The Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act is an important revision to section 110 of the Copyright Act of 1976 which assures that new technology based education, e.g. distance education using the internet, may apply the principles and provisions of fair use in their curricula. The University of Northern Colorado is in the process of satisfying TEACH Act requirements so that its provisions may be available to the University community.


“What is copyright?” adapted from content found at:, produced by the staff of the University of Minnesota Libraries.  Used with permission.