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Understanding Copyright

Learn copyright basics; learn best practices for avoiding copyright infringement

Important definitions

copyright: "the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.: works granted such right by law on or after January 1, 1978, are protected for the lifetime of the author or creator and for a period of 50 years after his or her death." (Source:

intellectual property: "property that results from original creative thought, as patents, copyright material, and trademarks." (Source:

fair use: "the conditions under which you can use material that is copyrighted by someone else without paying royalties." (Source:

Related Guides

Understanding Copyright: Information Literacy Guide

Knowing how to use information in an ethical manner is an important component of information literacy. With so much information available online and in digital format, it's easy to grab copies of other people's work and incorporate it into your projects and use it to create something different or new. Scanning technology also makes it easy to copy others' work in an easy, portable file. It's important to understand copyright and intellectual property rights, and to learn some best practices for avoiding copyright infringement. (See also our related Information Literacy guide on Understanding Plagiarism.)

Important considerations

When you copy, photocopy, scan, or otherwise reproduce someone else's intellectual property without permission of the person or company that owns the legal rights of that content, it's very important to take into account what you intend to do with that copied content.

Do you intend to...

Create something new with it? Have a plan before you scan. It's very popular to create multimedia or mashup projects using material from commercially published songs, movies, graphics, illustrations from books, music videos, online materials, and so on. If your project is strictly for your own use, or you're using only open source materials that are intended to be shared, that's probably okay. But if you plan to distribute, publish (including posting on YouTube, a website, or CMS like Canvas, WebCT or Moodle) or sell your creation, be very sure to do your copyright law homework first. See "More Information" links below, starting with EFF's Teaching Copyright materials, written from the perspective that "copyright law restricts many activities but also permits many others."

Best practice? Know your rights! When in doubt, avoid creative pitfalls and legal nightmares by formally securing all copyright permissions in advance of creating your project.

Copy / Scan the whole thing and redistribute or sell it? Very bad idea. We've all seen and heard the news stories about illegal downloads, videos being removed from YouTube due to copyright infringement, and sharing pirated copies of songs and movies. In the same way, scanning entire books or entire journal articles and redistributing, selling, or sending them to others or to another country for republishing or distribution is highly illegal. You run a serious risk of breaking the law and breaking ISU's own strict computer use policies if you engage in these types of activities, and you can be held liable.

Best practice: Don't do it. Familiarize yourself with ISU's Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources and especially the section on Unauthorized Use of Intellectual Property so you can fully understand the potential consequences of misuse of someone else's intellectual property and copyrighted material.

Post it online on your website or CMS (Canvas or WebCT or Moodle)? Entire universities and academic libraries have been sued recently for lax course reserves standards or professors posting full-text journal articles in Canvas / CMS and for which they didn't bother to secure copyright clearance. This is a common practice but one that puts faculty and their universities on thin ice.

Best practice: If you want to add journal articles, streaming videos, or other copyrighted content to your Blackboard, Moodle, or online course pages, work with the Library's Course Reserve unit to accomplish this. Reserve staff will always check into copyright issues for you, so it's also a time saver. You'll increase access for your students and can rest assured that you won't be infringing copyright and putting yourself and the University at risk.

But what about Fair Use? It's important to know that fair use is often misunderstood on campuses across the US to mean whatever the person invoking the phrase "fair use" wants it to mean. There is a common misconception that any and all copyrighted material that is used for educational purposes of any kind falls under fair use. This is an oversimplification, since it's often the people or company who own the copyright on the content in question who get to decide "how much" is okay to use without copyright clearance or payment. Educational use is only one of four factors that need to be considered when determining fair use.

Confused about fair use? Here's a very useful overview explaining the four factors (purpose; nature; amount; effect) and a checklist to help you determine whether your intended use might be considered fair use, from noted copyright expert Ken Crews at Columbia University. Be sure to read his introductory material that explains how to use his checklist "as a roadmap."

Best practice: Don't assume it's okay to scan and redistribute or post full-text publications, or okay to take snippets of commercial movies and songs and written or online publications without permission. Find out for sure by doing your homework (start with the "More Information" links below), contacting the Copyright Clearance Center, and, if you're an instructor, working with the Library's Course Reserve unit.

Susan A. Vega Garcia,
ISU Library

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Jeff Alger
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