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Scholarly Communication: Copyright


What is Copyright?

United States federal Copyright law grants the creator of an original work a number of exclusive rights. Copyright protection assumes three elements: the work is original, minimally creative, and  fixed in a tangible format. Examples of works that fall under copyright protection include books, articles,  sound recordings, images, art works, motion pictures, sound recordings, choreography, to name a few. The six exclusive rights are (in abbreviated form):

   — The right to reproduce the work
   — The right to prepare derivative works
   — The right to distribute copies of the work to the public
   — The right to perform the work publicly
   — The right to display the work publicly
   — The right to perform the work by means of a digital audio transmission.

These exclusive rights are not absolute, and  they may be unbundled and transferred to someone else: for example, an author may sign over book printing and distribution rights to a publisher. The rights are also limited in duration and are subject to a number of other exceptions. These exceptions, or limitations, permit use of a copyrighted work without the copyright holder's permission under certain conditions (see sections 107 - 122 of Chapter 1). A brief discussion of one of these limitations follows.


What is Fair Use?

One of the limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright holder is found in Chapter 1, section 107 of United States Copyright Law. Fair use allows scholars, students, teachers, and others to use works that are still in copyright protection for the purpose of education and criticism. Fair use is intended to be a defense against copyright infringement by allowing people a degree of freedom in using the works of others to create new works. The four factors of Section 107 are a set of guidelines for evaluating whether use of a copyrighted work is 'fair use,' and are not hard and fast rules. For example, in a copyright infringement case, a court would weigh all four factors:

   — The purpose and character of the use
   — The nature of the copyrighted work
   — The amount used
   — The effect on the market for the work

One of the uses specifically mentioned in the purpose clause is education: "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes." This does not mean that any use is fair as long as it is for educational purposes, as the three remaining factors must also be weighed, but education is specifically mentioned as a favored purpose.

To guide practitioners in their work, some associations and organizations have issued fair use guidelines. Guidelines describe uses that are generally agreed to be fair. It is important to remember, however, that guidelines are not law, they are usually conservative interpretations for a specific context, and as such, may represent minimum guidelines for use. For example, if a guideline recommends using no more than 10% of a copyrighted work, it is not necessarily true that using 15% or 20% cannot be fair.


How can I protect my works?

When U.S. Copyright Law was revised in 1976, registration and notification requirements were eliminated. Your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you fix it in some medium (paper, computer disk, videotape, etc.). You are not required to place a copyright statement on your work or register it with the copyright office, but it is a good idea to consider doing one or both. A copyright notice advises potential users that the work is protected and identifies you as the copyright holder. Registration is required before you can bring a lawsuit against someone who has infringed on your copyrights.



Northwestern University Copyright Policy
The policy summary and complete copyright policy of Northwestern University, from the Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO), Office of Research.


United States Copyright Office
Here you will find information about our online registration option, application forms for copyright registration, links to the copyright law, and more.


Obtaining Copyright Permissions
A comprehensive guide from the University of Michigan Library Copyright Office for copyright permission and fair use evaluation for text, photos, films, music, and more.


Keep Your Copyrights
This resource aims to make clear why you might want to keep your copyrights, and to provide information to help you hold on to your rights.


ALA Fair Use Evalulator
This tool can help you better understand how to determine the "fairness" of a use under the U.S. Copyright Code.


Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States
One of the best charts for figuring out when or whether a work is available in the public domain, by the Cornell University Copyright Information Center.


International Copyright Laws
From UNESCO, this resource endeavors to provide access to national copyright and related rights legislation of UNESCO Member States.


Columbia University's Copyright Advisory Office
Addresses, in a creative and constructive manner, the relationship between copyright law and the work of the university in order to best promote research, teaching, library services, and community involvement.


Cornell University's Copright Information Center
Provides Cornell faculty, staff, and students with Cornell-specific and general information about copyright.


Scholarly Communications @ Duke
A blog by Kevin Smith of Duke University, dedicated to disseminating advice and information about copyright and publication issues.

Digital Scholarship Services

Northwestern University Libraries


John Dorr
Head, Digital Scholarship Services

Cunera Buys
Data Management Librarian

Josh Honn
Digital Humanities Librarian

Liz Hamilton
Copyright Librarian