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Copyright Crash Course

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What is copyright?

  • A: Copyright is intellectual property law that gives the owner the right to copy, distribute, change, and display a work. 

Q: How long does copyright last?

  • A: Works created after 1978 are protected by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years. Anonymous works and works published before 1978 have different rules, if you are trying to identify if something is under copyright protection you can refer to the law or you can always check with a librarian. 

Q: How do I get copyright protection?

  • A: Your work is protected by copyright the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form. For example, the moment your pen hits paper, brush touches canvas, or your unique dance is recorded for TikTok. You can also register your automatic copyright with the Copyright Office. This will allow you to enforce your rights in federal court. You can learn about registering copyrights at the Copyright Office's website

Q: Who owns a copyright?

  • A: The author is usually the owner. An author-owner is free to assign copyright to anyone, so a written contract can change these basic rules. As an example, many publishers require assignment of copyright as a condition of publication

Q: What is work-for-hire?

  • A: The author's employer owns the work(s) if: 
    • Created by an employee within the scope of employment, or
    • That fall within one or more of the nine statutory categories, where an agreement commissioning the work is in writing and signed by the creator or creators before work begins.
      • The nine statutory categories include: contribution to a collective work; part of a movie or other audiovisual work; a translation; a supplementary work; a compilation; an instructional text; a test; answer material for a test; or an atlas
    • If a work doesn't fit within the statutory definition of a work-for-hire, the employer may still own it if the author assigns the copyright to the employer or contractor.

Q: Can multiple authors hold copyright? 

  • A: Yes. If multiple authors: 
    • Contribute copyrightable expression, and
    • Intend at the time the work is created that all contributors will be joint owners of the whole finished work.

Q: Do students hold copyright for the materials they authored in class?

  • A: Yes, students hold the copyright for academic works that they create including, dissertations, theses, written, and creative works (like a poem, photograph, or painting). If you wish to make a copy or display a student's work you should ask them for their permission first. 


Checklist for Finding Owner:

It can sometimes be difficult to identify copyright owners. The following structure can provide you with a systematic approach to the task: 

  1. Identify the author(s) and contact one or more of them
  2. Ask whether they own the copyright or whether the work was work for hire
  3. Ask whether they have transferred any of their rights, and if so, to whom

Search for Copyright Owners:

Below are some resources that are useful when trying to identify a copyright owner:

Orphan Works: 

If you've tried and you can't identify authors (or their estates), business owners, or can't successfully contact them, you probably have an "orphan work."  If you're running into trouble finding the contact information for a work, you can always reach out to a librarian (libref @ for help tracking down the owner or finding an alternative source. 

Example Correspondence to Copyright Owner: 


Dear _____________:

I am writing to request permission to copy [identify work or excerpt to be copied] for use in my class, [name of class], during the _________ semester. [Or explain other purpose.] A copy of the article [or “excerpt and copyright page”] is enclosed. [Unless all of this is clear from the enclosure, you should identify: (1) the author’s, editor’s or translator’s full name(s), (2) the title, edition and volume where applicable; (3) the copyright date, (4) the ISBN/ISSN number, if known, and (4) the exact page numbers or images you wish to reproduce.]

I anticipate an enrollment of approximately ___ students in the course and wish to provide a copy for each of them. [Or, “and wish to place a copy of your work in an electronic reserve, password protected so that only these students may retrieve it.”] [If applicable: “The students will be charged only for the cost of reproduction.” OR “We would provide these copies to the students without charge.”]

[Please let me know if there is a fee for reproducing this work in this manner.] [I appreciate your assistance.]

Kind regards,

Faculty Member

Permission to use copyrighted material. (2022). Washington University in St. Louis, retrieved from website

Permission Best Practices:

  • Get permission in writing and keep a record of your correspondence with the owner. 
  • Permission does not have to be in writing, but it is best to follow-up on a conversation with a written summary to ensure all parties are on the same page. 
  • Check to make sure that the person you are working with actually has authority to do so. Authors can transfer their copyright to publishers, in which case you would need to speak with the publisher. 


Unidentifiable/unresponsive owner:

Even if you are unable to find the copyright owner, the material is still protected by copyright law. 

While it is possible that a thoroughly documented unsuccessful search for an owner would positively affect the balance of the fair use test under the fourth factor or lessen a damage award even if the court determines that there was an infringement, there are no cases addressing this issue, so it's only a theory.

If you are unable to find the copyright owner, please don't hesitate to reach out to a librarian (libref @ to see if they are able to help find the holder or search for an alternative source. 

Online Materials and Copyright

Copyright law governs the use of materials you might find on the internet, just as it governs the use of books, video or music in the analog world. 

Common Misconceptions:

Myth: Many believe that online materials aren't covered by copyright unless they have a copyright notice ©.

  • Reality: Neither publication nor a notice of any kind is required to protect works today. Works are protected the second they are committed to a tangible medium, copyright protection is automatic. Computer media is considered tangible - this means, blog posts, discussion boards, and forums, for example, are protected. 

Myth: Any textbook that is uploaded to a website can legally be downloaded. 

  • Reality: Unless the textbook has been published under a creative commons (CC) license, is available as an Open Access resource it is probably copyright protected. Just because you found it online doesn't automatically mean it can be downloaded. 

The saving grace: implied and express licenses to use internet materials

Whenever an author posts anything on the internet, he or she should reasonably expect that it will be read, downloaded, printed out, forwarded, and even used as the basis for other works to some degree. So, just by posting online, an author implies a limited license to use their work in this manner. Think about the rights a newspaper editor has to publish a letter to the editor. The author of the letter probably did not include a line in the letter giving the editor an express permission to publish the letter, but anyone who sends such a letter must be presumed to understand that this is what happens to letters to the editor.

On the other hand, most authors would not think that posting a work online automatically gives consent to commercial use of it without permission. This is not part of what one reasonably expects, and so it's not part of the implied license.

Liability for posting infringing works

The proliferation of RIAA lawsuits against individuals for peer-to-peer file-sharing make clear that individuals can be liable for their own actions when they copy and distribute others' copyrighted works without permission. Universities and libraries can also be liable for the actions of their employees doing their jobs and possibly students who access the internet through university machines. This means that universities must pay attention to what their network users are doing, take effective measures to inform them about their responsibilities, and promptly investigate complaints of infringement.

The role of fair use

Fair use plays a critical role in the analog world where duplicating technology is cumbersome and authors make money by controlling copies. It balances authors' rights to reasonable compensation with the public's rights to the ideas contained in copyrighted works. It used to be safe to say that reasonable analog educational, research and scholarly uses were fair uses. But this appears to be changing. Those same activities in the digital world are being challenged, mostly because copyright owners have gone to such lengths to make the rights we need to carry out those activities easy to obtain and reasonably priced through collective licensing (the Copyright Clearance Center, in particular). Still, the main cases in this area have involved commercial entities, so their application to nonprofit educators is far from decided. To the extent that fair use is less clearly applicable than it used to be, reliance on fair use for uses of works we find on the web can be bolstered by reliance on implied and express licenses. Where fair use may be questioned, implied rights may be broader, but an express right to use is best - it's clear and reassuring. It's possible today to search Creative Commons licensed works by license type, or limit your search to be sure that your results include only materials intended for use by educators and students.