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Copyright Resources for Students: Copyright Basics

For Starters....

What is copyright? Copyright is a federal law that provides protection to creative and intellectual works. The copyright holder (usually the author or creator) has certain exclusive rights to their works – you cannot copy or distribute copyrighted materials without permission – with limited exceptions. Fair Use is one of these exceptions that students and faculty often rely on.

What is copyrighted? Copyright protects any “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” All of these are copyrighted:

  • Letters, emails
  • Prepared speeches
  • Digital or print photographs
  • Web sites
  • Music, audio recordings, films
  • Plays, dances, artwork
  • Books 
  • Articles
  • Software

What cannot be copyrighted?

  • Things that are not “fixed”: Impromptu speeches; singing in the shower.
  • Factual information: Weights & measures, lists, addresses, dates…
  • Ideas and concepts, slogans: This is what patents & trademarks are for.

Deeper Questions

How long does copyright last? A long time – generally speaking, copyright lasts 70 years after the life of the author. If a work is created by a corporation or employer, copyright lasts 95 years past the publication date. See this site for more information.

What kinds of things are no longer covered by copyright? Works published a long time ago – before 1926 – are no longer covered by copyright. These are thus said to be in the “public domain.” There are other ways to release a copyright, intentionally to share works with others, such as Creative Commons.

Copyright vs. Plagiarism: Copyright is different from plagiarism – “plagiarism” is an appropriation of someone else’s work without giving proper credit. You can plagiarize without infringing a copyright.

How do I get copyright? Copyright protection exists as soon as something is “fixed” – written down or recorded. You do not have to register your work to receive and retain copyright protection, but if you plan to publish, post, or otherwise distribute your work, it may be a good idea to do so since registration offers some legal benefits.


The student handbook includes the following summary of penalties for Copyright infringement:  

In general, anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay either actual damages or “statutory” damages affixed at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work infringed. For “willful” infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorneys’ fees. For details, see Title 17, United States Code, Sections 504, 505. Willful copyright infringement can also result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense.