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Copyright Information

What is copyright and why does it exist?

Copyright symbol

Copyright is a legal form of protection for creators of original works that are fixed in "tangible form."  Copyright applies to many kinds of work, including literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial, and cinematographic works, as well as databases and software. The copyright owner has the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or prepare derivative works - and can also authorize others to do so. Copyright does not apply to ideas, facts, procedures, or works that are not fixed in tangible form.

Copyright exists to provide an incentive to creators of original works, and also to recognize and safeguard authors' rights by ensuring attribution. In the U.S., copyright is automatic once a work is in fixed form; however, registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office creates a public record of ownership. Bear in mind that copyright is distinct from trademarks or patents.  While copyright  relates to original works of authorship, trademarks protect distinguishing words, phrases, symbols, or designs, and patents protect inventions.

Copyright lasts a very long time. In the United States, the length of copyright for  works created in "fixed form" after 1977 is the author's life plus 70 years. In most countries, it is granted for the author's life plus 50 years. The law of the country where a work is being used generally determines the length of copyright.

If you have questions about copyright at UM, please contact Charlotte Ford, University Copyright Officer, 205-665-6100.

Exceptions and limitations to copyright

In addition to copyrighted works, there are plenty of works that are in the public domain - meaning that copyright does not apply to them.  This could be because:

  • the work was never entitled to copyright protection (for example, U.S. government publications)
  • the copyright has expired
  • the creator has placed the work in the public domain, or
  • the copyright holder has failed to formally acquire or maintain copyright  

If a work is in the public domain it is free to use, and anyone can copy, distribute, display, or perform the work, or create derivative works.  However, it is still best practice to give credit to the original author, and to be sensitive to cultural and ethical norms surrounding the use of the work.  For more information on public domain works, click on the Free-to-Use Material tab.

There are also exceptions to copyright for teachers and librarians.  Section 110(1) of U.S. copyright law allows for the "performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction." The TEACH Act (under section 110(2)) allows for the performance and display of copyrighted materials for distance education by accredited, non-profit educational institutions. And Section 108 of copyright law allows libraries to make copies for preservation, replacement of obsolete works, and interlibrary loan purposes.  For more information on these limitations and exceptions, click on the Exceptions for Educators tab.

Additionally, there are exceptions to copyright for the purposes of fair use, which allows copying material for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as commentary, criticism, teaching, research, news reporting, or parody. Educators and librarians frequently make fair use of copyrighted material in their work, and often have questions about how to determine fair use. There are no set guidelines for fair use; rather, it is determined by considering: 

  • the purpose and character of the use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use on the potential market for the work

For more information, click on the Fair Use of Material tab. 


"What Is Copyright" sources"Circular 1, Copyright Basics" by U.S. Copyright Office. Public domain.  "Copyright Basics" by Creative CommonsCC BY 4.0"Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?" by US Patent & Trademark Office. Public domain.  "Global Aspects of Copyright" by Creative CommonsCC BY 4.0"Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright" by U.S. Copyright Office. Public domain. Image Source: Copyright symbol. Public domain.
"Exceptions and Limitations to Copyright" sources: "Global Aspects of Copyright" by Creative CommonsCC BY 4.0. "Circular 21, Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians", Public domain. "Fair Use" by Richard Stim. Originally published in Getting Permission. Berkeley, CA: NOLO, 2016.