Copyright is legal protection for creative intellectual works. Just about any fixed and tangible expression of an idea is covered by copyright, including text (such as books, articles, emails, and web-based information), photographs, art, graphics, music, and software. Copyright does not protect works that: lack originality (like the phone book), are in the public domain, are US government works, are facts, or are ideas, processes, methods, and systems described in copyrighted works.
As soon as a work is put in material form (printed, published, put on a website, recorded, filmed, etc.), it is copyrighted, and therefore protected by copyright law. Some works are placed in the public domain and therefore are not or are no longer copyrighted. A copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years before it automatically becomes a part of the public domain. Works published before 1978 have copyright protection for a maximum term of 95 years. Most commonly, the creator of the work holds the copyright and therefore the exclusive right to the reproduction and distribution of it. Sometimes the person who hired the creator holds the copyright and is the only one who can reproduce and distribute it.
Reading a book from the library, listening to a music from a CD you’ve purchased, watching a DVD you’ve rented are all legitimate personal uses of copyrighted works. Reproducing, copying, distributing, making derivative works of, publicly displaying, or publicly performing the work are not. These are the types of “uses” governed by copyright law. To “use” a copyrighted work, you must either have the copyright holder’s permission, or you must qualify for a legal exception such as “fair use.” Many educational uses qualify as “fair use; many may qualify only with explicit permission.
If you do not secure permission from the copyright holder to use the work and if you do not qualify for a legal exception such as “fair use,” your use of a copyrighted work (generally reproduction and/or distribution) likely is illegal. A relevant example of unauthorized use of copyrighted materials is the downloading (reproduction) and sharing (distribution) of music files using a peer-to-peer or File Sharing program. Current technology allows quick and convenient access to a range of copyrighted works. But this ease of access may result in the use of works without a full understanding of rights and user responsibilities.
Unauthorized use and distribution of copyrighted works can deprive creators and publishers of a fair return on their work and inhibit the creation of new works. Respect for the intellectual and creative work and property of others has always been essential to the mission of colleges and universities. As members of the academic community, we value the free exchange of ideas. Just as we do not tolerate plagiarism, we do not condone the unauthorized use and distribution of intellectual and creative work.
Unauthorized use and distribution of copyrighted works can harm the entire academic community. If unauthorized use and distribution proliferate on a campus, the institution may incur a legal liability. Also, the institution may find it more difficult to negotiate agreements that would make copyrighted products more widely and less expensively available to members of the academic community.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF file) amends federal copyright law to provide certain liability protections for online service providers, including the University of Colorado Boulder, when their computer systems or networks carry materials that violate copyright law. To qualify for liability protection, the University is required to have a policy under which the computer accounts of users will be terminated if they repeatedly infringe the copyrighted works of others.
Acknowledgement: Portions of this page have been excerpted, with permission, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Copyright Policy and from the University of Michigan's "Copyrights at the University of Michigan."
This site is not intended to provide legal advice about copyright.