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The Purpose of Copyright Law

Copyright law is intended to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 8.

Copyright protects “original works of authorship,” both published and unpublished, that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.

There are exceptions for the sake of education and encouraging new creative and intellectual works.

For more information on what types of materials are or are not eligible to be protected by copyright and on the limitations of copyright, see Copyright Basics from the U.S. Copyright Office.




Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I get help?

In addition to this guide, please contact Dana Ospina, Digital Initiatives Librarian, or your department's liaison librarian.

How do I know if something is copyrighted?

Copyright protections are given to any original work that is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression at the work’s creation.” Facts, ideas, U.S. government works and any work published before 1924 are considered public domain.

See: What is Covered and May I

How do I know whether my use of copyrighted materials is protected under the “Fair Use” clause of the Copyright Act?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the public to make limited uses of copyrighted works without permission. Fair use may not be what you expect. Therefore, do not assume that a nonprofit, educational use or giving credit for the source of the work, or that limiting access to materials to students in the class creates an inherent fair use. Fair use depends on a balancing of four factors, which may be addressed by a variety of means.

See: Fair Use - 4 Factors and Fair Use Analysis Tools

Can I repost items I find on the web without having to worry about copyright? Isn’t all of that stuff in the public domain?

Many people mistakenly assume that everything posted on the Internet is in the public domain. It is vital for you to know that current copyright law gives legal protection to nearly all text, images, audiovisual recordings, and other materials that are posted on the Internet, even if the original works do not include any statement about copyright. Always give attribution.

See: Obtaining Permission from the Copyright Holder and Fair Use - 4 Factors and Fair Use Analysis Tools for more Fair Use Myths

Music Copyright

If you are interested in learning more about copyright and music, both in terms of compositions you create and compositions you use, please watch this series of videos created by the Music Library at the College of William and Mary.