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Copyright at DePauw: Copyright Basics

This guide will give you a brief overview of U.S. Copyright Laws and open access as it pertains to your experience at DePauw. This guide is not intended to supply legal advice.

What is copyright?

What is copyright?

  • Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. 
  • Copyright protection is available to both published and unpublished works.
  • Copyright is the right a creator (author, artists, composer, etc) to control the use of their work by others.

For an original work to be protected by US Copyright Law, it must:

  • Be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression."
    • Examples include written documents, digital documents, recordings, music scores, etc.
  • Intangible forms such as: words, phrases, symbols (logos, slogans and brand names) can be trademark protected, while inventions can be patented.

Intellectual property is protected by laws specific to the expression of an idea. Copyright is the law specific to the expression of ideas in visual or audio form. Unlike a trademark that indicates a specific item or design is protected, copyright covers a different expression of thought. The term copyright contains within it the meaning of the term: the right to the copy.

What does copyright do?

Copyright grants creators the exclusive rights:

  • to reproduce the work (i.e., to make copies)
  • to prepare derivative works (i.e., create an adaptation, turning a book into a film, etc)
  • to distribute copies publicly
  • to perform the work publicly
  • to display the work publicly

How can you tell who holds the copyright for something?

Look for the copyright notice ©, if there is one (generally there is in a published book), or other type of license. That gives the name of the copyright holder. It is most often the author but could be the publisher. If the copyright holder is deceased, it may be their estate. There are several online resources to search for copyright holders:

--Adapted from Yale University Library

How can you tell if something is subject to copyright protection or not?

At this point you are aware that the majority of original work that is saved in some tangible form has copyright protections regardless of publication status.

When determining if something is subject to copyright protection or not you will want to consider two things:

  1. Was this item created before 1925? If so, it might be located in the public domain.
  2. Was this item registered with the US Copyright Office? If so, can you find it in their public catalog?

If you are still unable to find any documentation regarding the work in question -- reach out to the creator or the estate to ask!

What is the purpose of copyright?

There are two primary rationales for copyright law, though rationales do vary among legal traditions. The utilitarian rationale is associated with common law, while authors’ rights identifies with the civil law.[1]

Utilitarian: In this view, the purpose of copyright is to incentivize creators with the social benefits that will come from those works, including commercial gains.

Author’s rights: Founded upon moral rights, in this rationale copyright protection serves to recognize and protect the deep connection authors have with their creative works. This ensures attribution for authors and preserves the integrity of creative works.


What is not protected by copyright?

US copyright does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.”

If the work is under copyright, what sorts of things can you do with it?

There are a couple of things you can do with copyrighted material:

  • You can read, reference, and cite copyright materials in your work.
  • You can use copyrighted material under fair use if it is for educational purposes.
  • You can obtain copyright permissions from the owner of the work.

Exceptions to Copyright

There are a few exceptions or limitations to copyright that may apply:

  • One exception to the exclusive right provided by the Copyright Act is called "the fair use exception." The fair use exception permits the reproduction of a portion of a copyrighted work without the copyright owner's permission, under certain circumstances. This is an important exception for education, as it enables students, scholars, and critics to use and reference copyrighted works in their own scholarship, teaching, and critiques.
  • Public domain works can be used in any way you want. Most works enter the public domain once intellectual property laws expire, but some enter because creators wish for their work to be available without copyright law restrictions.
  • Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. Instead, they work alongside copyright and enable authors and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. These open licenses allow for content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.