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What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection provided by The Copyright Act of 1976 (title 17, U.S. Code) to the creators of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, artistic, musical, and other "works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression." 

What is protected?

Examples of copyrighted works include:

  • Literature
  • Novels
  • Poetry
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Movies
  • Architecture
  • Software

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

How long is a work protected?

In general, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15aDuration of Copyright, and Circular 1Copyright Basics.


Are there exceptions to Copyright?

The Classroom Use Exemption  allows for the display or performance of a work in class without obtaining permission or doing a fair use evaluation when the use meets all three of these criteria:

  1. In a classroom (or “similar place devoted to instruction");
  2. for face-to-face teaching (not over the Internet);
  3. at a nonprofit educational institution.

Typical uses allowed include:

  • showing all or part of a movie or television show (more information in the video section of this guide);
  • acting out  scenes;
  • reading poetry;
  • including pictures, images, graphs, and charts in lecture slides;
  • playing or performing music.

Making or distributing copies (i.e., handing out readings in class) is not covered by the Classroom Use Exemption (though it might still be allowed as a fair use).

What is Public Domain?

A work in the public domain is not protected by copyright and therefore may be freely used by anyone.

Works may fall into the public domain for several reasons:

1. The copyright has expired

2. The creator failed to renew copyright (only required for works created prior to 1978)

3. The owner explicitly creates the work as public domain or uses an alternative license (like Creative Commons)

4. The majority of works published by the U.S. Government

What about the TEACH Act?

Because of the growth of distance education, congress enacted the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act in 2002. The TEACH Act permits the performance of a reasonable and limited portion of music and films in an online classroom. However, while fair use is flexible, the TEACH Act has a number of requirements that must be met in order to be used. If you'd like to explore the TEACH Act, the University of Texas Libraries have developed a comprehensive checklist.