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Copyright: Basics

Detailed guidelines for authors, instructors, and students.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a set of laws designed to protect original works of authorship in a tangible form of expression. These laws offer copyright owners’ protection over how their work is reused.    

From Copyright Basics, Circular 1, U.S. Copyright Office, available online at

     Facts about copyright:

  • It exists from the moment of creation and lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years
  • you do not need the © on the work for the copyright to exist
  • to enforce © you need to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office

     Requirements for Copyright Protection

  • it must contain a little originality
  • It must be at least a little creative
  • it must be fixed or recorded in a physical format

     The owner of the Copyright, has

  • the right to distribute the work
  • the right to reproduce the work
  • the right to prepare derivative works
  • the right to perform or display the work
  • the right to license any of the above to others​

Public Domain

Public domain refers to works whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, have been waived, or ar inapplicable.  For example, works of Shakespeare or Beethoven were created before copyright existed. Some works such as cooking recipes, instructions, standard calendars, measurements, and telephone books which contain no original authorship are not eligible for copyright protection.  Be sure and check carefully to determine that

Other Public Domain works:

  • United States Government Documents
  • Materials that have used a Creative Commons license instead of copyright, which gives you permission to share and use materials.  Just look for a symbol similar to this to see if a work is covered by Creative Commons. 
  • Works with expired copyrights
  • Other - Check Copyright Terms and the Public Domain Chart


Fair Use

The Four Factors of Fair Use

The four factors judges consider are:

  • Purpose and character of your use - Is it of commercial nature or for nonprofit educational purposes? Non-profit educational use is the easiest to cover under fair use.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work - Factual or scientific materials fit better under fair use than creative works such as fiction, poetry, etc.
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion taken - The greater the work, the less likely it is to be fair use.
  • Effect of the use upon the potential market.- Can you easily purchase the copies you need? Are you repeatedly using something under fair use when you should be paying royalties?

Any determination of Fair Use must take all FOUR factors into consideration.

How often a work is used is NOT part of the copyright law, though some publishers believe you should seek permission or pay a royalty fee for repeated use of copyrighted works.  A safe practice is to seek permission for repeated use, especially if the use is over several years, though it is not stipulated by the copyright law.

Adapted from FL-102, June 1999.


Other Exceptions to Copyright

  • Library Use (Section 108) - Allows libraries and archives to reproduce one copy of a work without obtaining copyright permission.
  • Right of First Sale (Section 109) - Allows the general public to lend or resell copyright-protected work that they have purchased. Does not allow for the reproduction of purchased works.
  • Teach Act (Section 110) - Describes how copyright-protected materials can be used in distance education settings, including distributing works online in content management systems.

Copyright Tutorials and Resources

  • U.S. Copyright Office - Includes copyright law text, information about registering a copyright, and resources for learning more about the law's application.
  • Copyright Crash Course - This guide from the University of Texas libraries includes background information and additional references about copyright in a comprehensive tutorial format.
  • Copyright Digital Decision Tools - The American Library Association offers digital tools to help you make informed decisions about the use of copyrighted materials. These tools including the Section 108 Spinner, the Copyright Genie, and the Exceptions for Instructors ETool.
  • Copyright & Fair Use – Stanford University offers useful charts and tools about copyright.


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