Skip to Main Content

Copyright: FAQ

Copyright FAQ

Copyright Law Questions and Answers

What is copyright?

Copyright is an intellectual property right law working alongside trademarks, trade secrets, and patents to give creators exclusive rights over their creations for a limited time.

Copyright law limits how others can use an original work. It grants a set of exclusive rights to creators, which means that no one else can copy, distribute, perform, adapt or otherwise use the work in ways that violate those exclusive rights. 



How is plagiarism different from copyright?

Plagiarism and copyright are similar in that both deal with intellectual property, however plagiarism (using someone's words, ideas, images, etc. without acknowledgment) is a matter of professional ethics, while copyright is a matter of law. Failing to acknowledge a work, even if it is not copyright protected, is an act of plagiarism, conversely, correctly citing an author does not mean you have not committed an act of copyright infringement.

Why do we have copyright laws?

Copyright laws serve two primary purposes: 1) encourage continued creation of new works by increasing incentives to create, 2) ensure authors receive recognition for their works and are able to control the integrity of their works.

What is copyrightable?

Copyright does not protect facts or ideas themselves, only the expression of those facts or ideas. Almost any creative work is copyrightable so long as it is original. Copyright usually also requires that the work be fixed in a tangible medium (printed, recorded, published on the web, etc.)

How does a work get copyright protection?

Copyright is automatic the moment a work is fixed in a tangible medium. While the duration of copyright varies from country to country, it is usually a minimum of the creator’s life plus 50 years. In the United States, copyright protection is the creator's life plus 70 years.

What are the rights of users? 

In an effort to balance the interests of copyright holders with the interests of the public, copyright laws allow certain limitations and exceptions to copyright. Some exceptions are explicitly stated. For example, the United States has a “first sale doctrine.” This doctrine limits the right of copyright holders to control what people do with the copyright-protected items that they have legally purchased. It allows people to sell, rent, lend, or give away legally purchased items.

Countries also provide copyright limitations through general flexible guidelines. In the United States, they are called “fair use” rights. In Commonwealth countries they are called “fair dealing” rights. Fair use provides certain activities the right to use copyright-protected works without having to gain permission. Examples of fair use activities include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. In the United States, when there is a disagreement about whether or not an activity constitutes fair use, the matter is decided in federal courts using a four factor proportionality test:

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

For more information on fair use in the United States, see the U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index for a searchable database that tracks judicial opinions related to copyright.

What is meant by public domain and why is it important?

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws. A work is considered to be within the public domain if it is

  1. ineligible for copyright protection -- U.S. government works, for example, are considered public resources and so are not eligible for copyright
  2. its copyright has expired - copyright law states that works should be protected for a limited time

The public owns the works that are in the public domain, meaning they are available for anyone to copy, adapt, and share. A healthy public domain is important for the preservation of our cultural history. and as a foundation or inspiration for new creative works. The public domain is an important part of the balance between the rights of creators and the rights of the public to creative works. If this balance is disrupted, the benefits society gains through rewarding creators can be outweighed by the restrictions placed on public use of those creations.  A primary goal of copyright is to benefit society by encouraging and rewarding creators, but those benefits are quickly diminished if the creative works do not enter into the public domain and become available as a foundation for new creations.

Traditional Knowledge and the Public Domain

Subject Contacts

Jean Shumway

Reference & Instruction Librarian
724-287-8711 ext. 8296

Page attributions

This work, "Copyright Questions and Answers", is a derivative of "Creative Commons Certificate for Educators and Librarians: Unit 2: Copyright Law, used under CC BY. "Copyright Questions and Answers" is licensed under CC BY by Jean Shumway.