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Copyright Law & Fair Use

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection that the U.S. gives to creators and authors of original creative works, including without limitation, literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. The protection applies to both published and unpublished works. Copyright is the right of the author, artist, composer, or creator to control the use of his or her work by others.

To acquire copyright protection, a work must be an idea that is fixed in a tangible form of expression. A work is original when a human author produces it and it possesses at least a minimal degree of creativity. A work is fixed when is captured in a sufficiently permanent medium that would allow the work to be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection is automatic from the moment the original work is fixed. A non-exhaustive list of works that are subject to copyright protection are literary works, musical works, dramatic works, motion pictures, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works. 

What is fair use?

  • Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Courts consider the following four factors in determining whether a particular use is “fair use.”
    • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is for commercial or nonprofit educational purposes.
    • Purpose and nature of the copyrighted work.
    • The amount of the work used in relationship to the work as a whole.
    • The effect of the use on the market for the work or value of the work.
    • For more information regarding fair use and application of these factors, see the U.S. Copyright Office’s More Information on Fair Use page. The Copyright Office has also published a circular on the Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians, which may be helpful for fair use analysis.