Copyright Demystified

About Copyright

Copyright is the cornerstone of academic work. But copyright can be complicated – is there a way to make it easier to understand? This site provides guidance in understanding copyright for academic work and teaching.

The Copyright Act of 1976 is the basis for current copyright law. It was enacted into law in 1976 and went into effect on January 1, 1978. 

The Copyright Term Extension Act (or Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) extended terms for works under copyright by 20 years, delaying the time when these works enter the public domain. It was enacted into law in 1998. 

A brief history of United States copyright law is available from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

What Works Are Covered by Copyright?

Consult the Copyright Genie (Source: ALA Office of Information Technology Policy)

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Peter Hirtle, Cornell University Libraries)

Stanford Copyright Renewal Database (Source: Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources)
Allows you to search works created from 1925-1963 to determine if the copyright term was renewed. If the copyright wasn't renewed, then the item should reside in the Public Domain.

What Is Exempt from copyright?

An idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied. (17 USC §102) Any work from the U.S. Government. (17 USC §105

Copyright Gives an Owner the Right to

  • Reproduce the work as copies or phonorecords
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform the work publicly (i.e. music, dramatic, choreography, pantomimes, motion pictures, audiovisual works)
  • Display the work publicly (i.e. music, dramatic, choreography, pantomimes, motion pictures, audiovisual works)

How Can I Register My Work?

Links to the paper and online registration for works in the U.S is available from the U.S. Copyright Office. (United States Copyright Office)

Who Owns the Copyright for a Work?

Binghamton University’s Copyright and Fair Use policy has three main categories of works with defined ownership:

1. Copyrightable work produced by faculty and staff without the use of University services or facilities and free from any agreements administered through the University.

This includes the writing of scholarly books, publications, music, plays, computer software, and all other works. Copyright title in such cases belongs to the person creating the material.  For example: © 1996 Jane Doe

2. Copyrightable work produced as part of an individual's assigned responsibility as SUNY employee or with University support.

Where a faculty or staff member is specifically directed to create specified copyrightable work, the materials are deemed a "work for hire" and the copyright title will be in the name of the State University of New York.

Also included in this category is work produced using University facilities or services to complete or to market the work.

© (Date) State University of New York at Binghamton

3. Copyrightable instructional materials produced by an individual using University facilities or equipment.

Copyrightable instructional materials (e.g., syllabi, lecture notes, presentation graphics, learning activities, and assessment materials) produced by an individual at their own discretion in support of teaching activities, and not directed as a work for hire as outlined in 2 above, are normally considered the intellectual property of the individual.

Did you sign over copyright ownership to a publisher for a book or journal article when it was published? If you signed a copyright transfer form the rights now reside with the publisher. Aren’t sure if you own the rights to an older publication? The best first step is to contact the publisher in question and ask them. 

How do I find out who owns a work?

The U.S. Copyright Office has a search site to check ownership information for works.

The Copyright Office also has a copyright guide, How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, if your search is more complex. 

Copyright Exceptions that Allow You to Use a Work without Obtaining Permission

For teaching and research the following copyright exceptions may apply:

1.  Fair Use (17 USC §107) Fair Use can be used as an option if a use might not be permissible under either Sections 110(1) or 110(2) described below. It allows you to use a portion of the work, considering a balance of four factors.

  • the purpose and character of the use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

This is the most complex and nuanced of all the exceptions, and there are a variety of helpful sites to consult for a fair use analysis. 

A Fair(y) Use Tale (Stanford University)
Fair Use Evaluator (ALA Office for Information Technology Policy)

2.  Performance and display in the classroom (Section 110(1)) allows the instructor to use portions (or perhaps the entire content) of copyrighted works for the purposes of instruction. It covers all media including movies and images.

3.  Distance Education: the TEACH Act (Section 110(2)) This covers online teaching. Checklists have been created to review criteria and gauge risk in using copyrighted works for online classes:
TEACH Act Flow Chart (Duke University Libraries)
TEACH Act Checklist (University of Texas LIbraries)

Libraries have copyright exceptions they frequently utilize: 

  1. Reproduction by Libraries and Archives (Section 108) This allows for preservation copies to be made available. 
  2. First Sale (Section 109) Allows libraries to circulate copies of works purchased. Library collections that are licensed, like some e-books and journals, cannot use the first sale exception, since the license may contain terms and conditions that alter copyright permissions. 

Questions? Contact the Libraries' Director of Assessment and Scholarly Communications: Elizabeth Brown, (607) 777-4882.