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Copyright Basics

Click here for entire Copyright Law of the United States of America.

Click here for a quick reference Public Domain Slider

Is everything protected by copyright and do you have to register your work for it to be protected?

No, not everything is protected and no, it is not necessary to register your work to protect it. However, if you find it necessary to file an infringement suit, your copyright must be registered (click here for current fees to register and click here for registration forms).

Ideas and thoughts are not protected and facts are not, e.g., President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The expression of those ideas, thoughts, and facts in any tangible form are protected. Such expression may be either in the written or spoken form and include (but not limited to) photographs, drawings, paintings, fiction, non-fiction, music compositions, poetry, computer programs, films, and other tangible items.

Any individual item or piece of work created and recorded in any of the above mentioned forms is considered a "work of authorship."

"Exceptions" to this copyright ownership may occur when an individual creates the work as part of his or her employment or the work has been created or contracted out as a "work for hire."

If a work does not need to be registered to be protected, does it need any kind of notice on it, such as the copyright symbol (©)?

Although the current law says registering your work is not necessary, there are three things that you should include on your work: 1) the copyright symbol (©) for printed material and a P with a circle around it for recordings () 2) the date you first published the material, 3) the name of the author or copyright owner. Example: © 2007 Jane Doe or 2007 LMN Recordings, Inc.

There are several revisions to the copyright law and several significant dates, but generally, works published before 1989 without copyright notice are not protected.

Is the work I have created, registered, and placed copyright notice on protected forever?

No. Currently (after 1989), even without registration and notice, a work is protected for 70 years after the death of the author. Generally works that were created before 1923 are no longer protected and are in the public domain. Anything published between 1923 and 1978 without a notice and registration is in the public domain. Anything between 1978 and March 1, 1989 published without notice but with subsequent registration is protected for 70 years after the death of the author. (For a more detailed explanation, see the government brochure on Copyright Basics).

Fair Use, The Teach Act, and Classroom Instruction<

What does Fair Use mean?

The Copyright Act was established to protect authors and their works from exploitation; however, there are limitations (fair use) that apply. There are four of these limitations that educators in particular must pay close attention to. Why educators? Because educators are most likely to employ fair use when they find it necessary to use copyrighted works without permission in the act of teaching.

Those four limitations or factors that must be considered when applying fair use as indicated in § 107 U.S. Copyright Law, Title 17 Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use are:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

If an instructor follows the general guidelines of "brevity, spontaneity, and cumulative effect," then making multiple copies of copyrighted works for use in a course is permissible. However, instructors cannot include these copies in a "course pack" or use them repeatedly in subsequent semesters without permission from the copyright holder.

What if I want to show a movie or perform a play or part of a play in my class?

As with printed material, the copyright holder has the rights to the public display or performance of his or her work. In summary, §110 U.S. Copyright Law, Title 17: Limitations on exclusive rights: Exemption of certain performances and displays, allows an instructor to publicly display or perform a work provided that:

  • The work is performed or displayed as part of the "face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution"
  • The work is performed or displayed at the direction of the instructor and an "integral part of a class session offered as a regular part of the systematic mediated instructional activities"
  • The work performed or displayed is "directly related and of material assistance to the teaching content of the transmission"
  • The work is performed or displayed to "students officially enrolled in the course…. or for employees of governmental bodies as a part of their official duties or employment"
  • The institution posts "policies regarding copyright, provides informational materials to faculty, students, and relevant staff members that accurately describe, and promote compliance with, the laws of the United States relating to copyright, and provides notice to students that materials used in connection with the course may be subject to copyright protection"

None of the above applies if the instructor or institution knows or suspects that the copy of the work being publicly performed or displayed has been obtained illegally.

What if my class is not in a face-to-face classroom, but online or through ITV? Do the same exemptions apply for public performances?

The TEACH Act, a 2002 amendment to the Copyright Act and addresses distance education specifically. Under this act, instructors are able, for the most part, to distribute materials online just as they would in a face-to-face setting. The course must be restricted to only those individuals enrolled in the course and only accessible through an authenticated method. A Web page created by the instructor or the institution does not constitute a fair use dissemination of materials. Web pages are accessible to anyone on the Internet and therefore require permission from the copyright holder to place materials other than those created by the institution or the instructor on the site.

According to the Questions & Answers on Copyright for the Campus Community (7th edition), the following types of materials may be distributed online within the above guidelines:

  • Full performances of musical and non-dramatic literary works. (This excludes AV works such as musicals, music videos, and opera, but does include such items as poetry or short stories)
  • Reasonable parts of musicals, films, videos, and other AV works.
  • Still images of all kinds in "amounts similar to typical displays in face-to-face teaching."

Those items excluded from online distribution are:

  • Materials that are created by third-party vendors for specific use in an online setting,
  • Illegally made copies which the instructor knows or suspects are illegal
  • Materials that would be purchased by students in and for a face-to-face class, such as course packs, textbooks, and other similar materials.

Instructors, in accordance with the TEACH Act, must be sure that under the auspices of the act the following conditions are met:

  • Materials are accessible only to those individuals enrolled in the course
  • Materials are no longer accessible at the completion of the course
  • Materials are necessary for and directly related to the course
  • Materials include the following copyright notice (on each piece or packet or before each presentation):

This material is protected by Title 17 U.S. Copyright and is for use only by those students registered for this course.

Nicolet College will, in accordance with the TEACH Act

  • Create and put into place copyright policies
  • Disseminate and/or make available to students, faculty, and staff materials that explain and encourage conformity with the U.S. Copyright Law
  • Place notice on materials which may be used in the course indicating such materials may be protected by copyright.

Nicolet College also:

  • Will provide the software that will allow only those students registered for the course access to the course
  • Will not keep course material available electronically or otherwise, for longer than a course's scheduled offering;
  • Will employ technology that will minimize a student's ability to further distribute or keep materials that have been transmitted as part of the course;
  • Will not impede or interfere with the technological measures put into place by copyright owners to thwart such distribution or saving of materials

What about the material that I want to put on reserve in the library? Are there any copyright restrictions that might apply there?

Any material that is purchased by the library may be placed on reserve—e.g., a textbook, a supplementary reading text, a film. A single copy of an article or a chapter in a book may be placed on reserve as long as that copy or chapter remains on reserve for one semester.

If you plan to use an article or a chapter from a particular book for more than one semester, you must obtain copyright permission or request reprints of the article/s or chapter/s.

What is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and how does that affect me?

In brief, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was enacted to protect intellectual property in the digital environment.

The law prohibits:

  • Anyone other than the service provider to transmit material;
  • Anyone other than the service provider to store or route material through automated technological means;
  • Selection and sending of materials except at the request of the recipient of the services and as an automatic response to such a request;
  • Storage of the material on the system or network except in the course of providing intermediary access to recipient requests and storage of the material for longer than is practical to transmit or route the material;
  • Modifying the material's content in the act of transmitting it through the system or network

Anyone with a concern regarding infringement must provide Nicolet College with sufficient identification of the violation and of the owner's rights, as well as complete information so the college may contact the complaining party.

The Nicolet College agent identified for purposes of the DMCA is:

Vice President of Instruction
Nicolet Area Technical College
P.O. Box 518
5362 College Drive
Rhinelander, WI 54501

For more detailed information on the DMCA, see the The Digital Millennium Copyright Act OF 1998


Madison Area Technical College Copyright Procedures. (2006). Retrieved March 9, 2007 from MATC website MATCCopyrightProcedures.pdf

Q & A: Questions & answers on copyright for the campus community (7th ed.) (2006) New York: Association of American Publishers, Inc.; Association of American University Presses; Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.; National Association of College Stores, Inc.; Software & Information Industry Association

Russell, C. (2004) Creative copyright: An everyday guide for librarians. Chicago, IL: American Library Association Creative Commons Deeds License.

Stim, R. (n.d.) Copyright ownership and rights. Retrieved May 8, 2007 from Nolo website.