Copyright Guide

The word "copyright" highlighted on a page
The Brandeis University Library is committed to full compliance with the laws governing the use of copyrighted material for academic purposes. Compliance with the copyright laws, including the doctrine of fair use, promotes progress in the arts and sciences and helps the University to fulfill its academic mission. This guide does not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.

Why should I think about copyright?

Copyright is a law that grants creators exclusive rights over their creative expressions. You should think about copyright whenever you are considering using someone else’s creative work that was at any time fixed in a tangible medium of expression because if you use someone else’s creative work in a way that infringes their exclusive rights, you can be exposed to expensive legal penalties. Therefore, copyright applies and ought to be considered whenever you intend to reproduce, in whole or in part, something someone else originally created.

The types of “creative work” copyright applies to can be text, images, sound, objects, software, or designs: anything that is someone’s original expression. “Tangible medium of expression” doesn’t necessarily mean that the medium currently exists, only that such a medium ever existed: for instance, a radio broadcast exists (sometimes extremely briefly) on the recording equipment that captures and broadcasts it. Even if a permanent recording of the broadcast wasn’t made or wasn’t kept, the broadcast itself is still copyrighted. This same principle applies to the random-access memory of computers. If something ever existed in any digital form, it could be copyrighted even if it no longer exists or has become inaccessible. Therefore, you should think about copyright whenever you are considering using someone else’s creative work as a part of your own, new work.

How can I know whether something is copyrighted and who owns the copyright?

You should begin by assuming that all original, creative works are protected by copyright before looking for a reason why they may not be, such as whether they have entered the public domain. If you determine that a work is not in the public domain and you still want to reproduce it in whole or in part, you can:

To determine who holds a copyright and can give you permission to use it, consider the creators and publishers of the work. The copyright holder is generally the creator, but could be someone who commissioned the creator to create the work “for-hire”, or a publisher who the creator agreed to transfer their copyright to.

How can I use copyright to protect my rights to my own works?

Your own creative work is copyrighted from the moment of its creation (assuming it is actually is your work and not a work you did “for-hire”). Although you automatically hold copyright to your own works, you must register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office before you are allowed to bring lawsuits to enforce your copyright. You can register your copyright by filling out a brief form and depositing two copies of the work with the Office. Timely registration—within three months of the work’s public distribution—makes it much easier to recover money damages from an infringer.

Copyright violations

Exceptions and defenses to copyright infringement

Copyright law defines its own limits. These include the amount of time a work is protected before it enters the “public domain,” the “fair use” defense, and a third is a narrow, specific exemption for display and performance of copyrighted works in face-to-face classroom settings. These limits provide guidance as to whether or not your uses of copyrighted material are legally protected.