Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

The Copyright Law, Title 17 of the US Code, lists five rights that an author has as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible form. They include the rights to the following:

  • Copy
  • Distribute or publish
  • Create derivative works (a screen play, abridgement, translation and so on)
  • Display
  • Perform

What is eligible for copyright protection?

The original creation of an author. For purposes of registration, the copyright office categorizes works as literary, visual, performance, musical, serial works (like journals), and computer circuit boards.

How can I tell if something is protected by copyright?

A number of factors determine whether an item is protected or not including the following:

  • Whether it carries a copyright notice
  • Whether it is registered with the Copyright Office
  • Date of publication
  • Date of registration or renewal

Because it is complicated and the law has changed over time, we recommend you check one of these two charts to help you determine if an item is covered.

To see if a copyright was registered or renewed after 1978, check the Catalog of the Copyright Office.

Asking for permission

  • Many publishers have copyright contact information on their web pages. It is wise to retain copies of your correspondence and if you correspond by mail, be sure to use letterhead and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Collins Library has developed a sample letter for your convenience.
  • Some publishers contract with the Copyright Clearance Center for permissions. The University has an account with the CCC that is administered by the Director of Library Services.
  • If the author has retained copyright in the material, a faculty member approaching him or her directly has a reasonably good chance of paying little or nothing in royalties. Getting a response, however, may take a month or so.
  • And, there is always the possibility that permission will be denied.

Penalties: What’s at stake?

The copyright law provides for either actual or statutory damages if the courts find that infringement has taken place. The amounts of statutory damage awards differ based on whether the infringement was willful or innocent, as follows from these excerpts from Section 504c:

  1. …an award of statutory damages for all infringements involved in the action, with respect to any one work, for which any one infringer is liable individually, or for which any two or more infringers are liable jointly and severally, in a sum of not less than $750 or more than $30,000.
  2. …the court finds, that infringement was committed willfully, the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to a sum of not more than $150,000. In a case where … such infringer was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of copyright, the court in its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200.