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Copyright: Copyright Basics

Copyright Information - Not Legal Advice

Note that the author of this guide is not an attorney and is providing only information on copyright. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice. For legal advice, please see an attorney.

Copyright Basics

Copyright is a set of rights given to the creator of an original work fixed in a tangible medium.

Rights include:

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  • to distribute copies of the work to the public
  • to perform the work publicly
  • to display the work publicly
  • to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

Public Domain

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."

Works enter the public domain in several ways:

  • U.S. government documents are in the public domain by law (17 USC §105)
    • Some states have similar laws but not South Dakota so SD documents are covered by copyright.
  • Time - current length of copyright is the life of the author (or longest lived author) + 70 years OR for anonymous/pseudonymous works or works for hire 95 years
    • Time is complicated as the length and the requirements have changed over the years so it depends on when a work was created and/or published
  • License - Creative Commons and other licensing schemes allow a person to put something into the public domain

Fair Use Guidelines - How Do I Determine if My Use is Fair Use?

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.

Fair Use Evaluator from  (this replaces the link from the University of Minnesota which retired their page)

Cornell University Fair Use Checklist

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.

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services, Copyright Advisory Office. Case Summaries


Copyright Act § 107, 17 U.S.C. (1978).

Section 110 & the TEACH Act

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 for more information. Also, in most cases, only segments of movies or music may be shown online.

Length of Copyright

The magic copyright date for 2021: 1926

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 for more information on when copyrighted works go in the public domain.

Open Access & Creative Commons Licensed Works

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:

  • Textbooks
  • Assignments
  • Worksheets
  • Supplemental materials (reading, videos, images)
  • Labs
  • Computer simulations
  • Recorded lectures
  • Entire classes

See Briggs Library's Open Educational Resources webpage for more information and sources of OER.

Obtaining Permission to Use a Work

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

  • Look for a copyright notice
  • Contact the publisher for books; journals for articles; or owner for websites
    • Publishers often have a permissions request link on their website
  • Contact the author or creator

If you are not using a pre-formatted form, information to include in a letter includes

  • Complete citation
    • If you just want to use a part of the item such as a table or illustration, indicate the part that you want to use
  • What type of reproduction you want to do
  • What you will use them
    • If for a class, include the enrollment or expected enrollment of a class
    • Including the course number and name
  • The semester and year it will be used
    • If you want to use it for multiple semesters, include the frequency you want to use it and when you expect to stop using it
  • How the materials will be distributed

Here are sample letters you can use:

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