Copyright is a set of rights given to the creator of an original work fixed in a tangible medium.
According to the Copyright Office of the U.S. Government, the public domain is "A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html
Works enter the public domain in several ways:
There are many checklists for fair use out there on the internet. A few are linked below with some being more detailed and others less. Choose one you like and use it to determine whether your use is fair use or not. Note that if you are ever sued, showing that you performed a fair use analysis before using the work can be beneficial in court. Of course, it is also beneficial not to end up in court in the first place.
Thinking Through Fair Use Guide from the University of Minnesota
The following website has a good analysis of some past copyright cases that have won or lost based on fair use. They summarize the findings on each of the factors of fair use.
Copyright Act § 107, 17 U.S.C. (1978).
Section 110 of Title 17, U.S.C., the copyright law, allows the display or performance of works such as movies and music in a face-to-face classroom with a teacher present. An entire film or piece of music may be shown in a classroom as long as it relates to educational objectives for the class.
The TEACH Act is much more complicated and moves section 110 to online education. There are more conditions that both the instructor and the institution must meet to use the TEACH Act. See https://libguides.sdstate.edu/copyright/TEACH for more information. Also, in most cases, only segments of movies or music may be shown online.
The magic copyright date for 2020: 1925
Works registered or published before 1925 are in the public domain and can be used without permission.
Exception: Sound recording - the soonest any sound recording will be in the public domain is 2067.
See https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain for more information on when copyrighted works go in the public domain.
Open Educations Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.
Many OER materials allow you to edit the material so you can customize it for your specific needs.
Types of OER materials include but are not limited to:
If you need to ask for permission to use a work, leave plenty of time. Some copyright holders reply right away but others never respond. Only a response that agrees to your use is permission. If you never receive a response, that is the same as a no.
SHERPA/RoMEO Check out this searchable database of publishers policies on copyright.
Determine who owns the copyright
If you are not using a pre-formatted form, information to include in a letter includes
Here are sample letters you can use:
Baker University - basic letter with needed information you just need to fill in, html format
Cornell University - basic letter with lines to check for many of the options, word format
University of Texas (from the Copyright Crash Course) - sample letters for general permission requests, right to plays, musicals, and live music, rights for architectural works, word format