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Copyright and Fair Use: The Basics: Copyright Basics

What You Need to Know

The U.S. Copyright Act gives a copyright owner exclusive rights. These include, among others, the rights to reproduce the work in copies; to prepare derivative works based upon the work; to distribute copies of the work to the public; or to perform or display the work publicly. You must obtain authorization from the copyright holder to reproduce, distribute, perform or display a work in a public performance, in print or any in electronic medium.

Copyright is immediate and omnipresent.

As soon as a work is created and published, whether in print or electronically, it is protected by copyright law.

Copyright lasts a long time.

Copyright protection can last for decades.  New works generally enter the public domain 70 years after a creator has died.  Most works created before 1923 are now in the public domain.  

Some works are in the "public domain" and aren't subject to copyright.

Ideas, facts, short phrases, government works, and works created before 1923 are generally not covered by copyright and may be used by anyone.

Copyright holders may voluntarily release some or all of their rights.

For example, some academic, scholarly or not-for-profit organizations make content freely available under a range of Creative Commons licenses. Open access journals, in particular, often use Creative Commons licenses.

Copyright holders often sell or transfer some or all of their rights to a distributor or a publisher. 

It is common for publishers to ask you to transfer to your copyrights to them as a condition of publication.

There are exceptions to copyright limitations.

The Copyright Act includes numerous exceptions that permit you to use a work without seeking permission. Those most important to educators are the "fair use" limitations.