Creating and using copyrighted works is a necessary part of teaching, research, and scholarship. Copyright law can be complex, but a basic understanding of its core principles and exceptions will enable you more confidently create and use resources as a student, scholar, or teacher.

What is copyright?

  • Set of exclusive rights granted to creators of original works.
  • Enshrined in US Constitution in 1789, to encourage innovation by giving unique legal rights to creators for their works, created as a social good to promote progress of science and the arts.
  • One form of intellectual property, but different from trademarks, patents, design rights.

What is protected by copyright?

  • “Original expressions in a fixed form.”
    • Original - only requires a minimal degree of creativity.
    • Fixed - in a tangible medium that can be perceived.
  • Does not protect ideas - only the form in which those ideas are expressed.
    • Example: Table of a raw data vs. a highly creative visualization of the same data.
  • US copyright law lists categories, including literary, musical and dramatic works, choreography, pictures, sculpture and graphic works, motion pictures, sound recordings, and architecture.

Exclusive rights of copyright owners

  • Exclusive because the owner has the sole authority over them.
  • Five basic rights:
    • Reproduction (making copies)
    • Distribution
    • Public performance
    • Public display
    • Preparation of derivative works
  • Bundle of rights – owners can sell, license, or transfer any or all of these rights.

Ownership of copyright

  • Automatic as soon as a work of original authorship is fixed.
  • No copyright symbol © or registration is needed.
  • Person who creates the work owns the rights until they are transferred to someone else or expired.

Works made for hire

  • Works created “by an employee within the scope of his or her employment” belong to the employer.
  • Works created by independent contractors if there is an express agreement made – usually in writing - that the works are for hire.
  • What about scholarly works created by CWRU faculty? Scholarly norms overlap with but often differ from copyright law. CWRU faculty own the copyrights to their scholarly works even though they are typically created in the scope of their employment. See CWRU’s Intellectual Property policy for more details.

Joint ownership of copyright

  • Creators become joint owners when two or more contribute to a work with the intention that the contributions become a “unitary whole.”
  • Joint ownership is independent of academic rank or subordinate relationship.
    • E.g., A tenured professor, adjunct instructor, and multiple graduate students would all have equal rights to any work which they jointly authored.
  • Important for joint authors to have mutual understanding of how to exercise the copyrights for the joint work.

Duration of copyright

  • Term limits have evolved and have been lengthened over time. Since 1998, copyright term now lasts for life of the author + 70 years and 95 to 120 years for corporate authors.

Public domain - works that are not under copyright protection

  • Anything published before 1929.
  • Works published between 1929-1963 may be in the public domain if they lack © notice or were not renewed, difficult to be certain.
  • Federal government works, but not necessarily state or local government works.
  • Unpublished works if the author died over 70 years ago.
  • For more information, see the Public Domain Chart, by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University.

Copyright infringement and plagiarism

  • Scholarly norms overlap with but often differ from copyright law. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are related but distinct.
    • Plagiarism is the “unacknowledged” use of someone else’s work.
    • Copyright infringement is the “unauthorized” use of someone else’s work.
  • Citation and attribution prevent plagiarism but not copyright infringement.
  • It is possible to cite something but still infringe the copyright.
  • It is possible to plagiarize something even if it’s not protected by copyright.

Transfer of copyright

  • Copyright is a bundle of rights (reproduction, distribution, public performance, public display, right to make derivative works) and can be sold, given away, or licensed in whole or in part.
  • Usually in writing, in a “copyright transfer agreement.”

These principles and overview of copyright are described in more depth in the Case Western Reserve University Copyright Compliance Policy.

For copyright questions, please contact