The goal of copyright law, as grounded in the U.S. Constitution, is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.
Copyright is a form of protection granted to authors that provides them, for a limited period of time, with certain exclusive rights. These rights are intended to encourage authors to create, thereby providing society with valuable works.
The limitation on the length of copyright (as well as other limitations such as fair use) balances the benefits of incentives for authors with the benefits of allowing the public to make use of copyrighted materials in a free and democratic society.
Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do any of the following:
Copyright protection attaches automatically to original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Originality requires that the work was created independently (i.e. not copied from another) and that it embodies a minimum amount of creativity. To be fixed in a tangible medium of expression means that the work can be perceived either directly or by a machine or device such as a computer or projector.
Copyrightable works include the following categories:
Certain types of works are not eligible for copyright protection. These include:
These works are in the public domain, meaning they are freely available for use without copyright restrictions.
In order to balance the needs of users with those of rightsholders and to preserve copyright's purpose to promote science and the useful arts, copyright law contains a number of exceptions.
Many of the exceptions in copyright law apply only to certain types of works under very specific conditions. The exceptions can be difficult to understand and apply without the advice of a lawyer.
In contrast, fair use is easier to understand, applies to all types of works, and is flexible. It is for these reasons that this guide recommends relying on fair use when deciding when and how to use (or not to use) third-party copyrighted material in online education.