What is Copyright?
Copyright protects original forms of expression. The 1976 Copyright Act states, "Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." (US Code, Title 17, Section 102)
Items Not Protected
The Copyright Act continues by stating, "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." (US Code, Title 17, Section 102)
Documents produced by the federal government are also not protected by copyright. (US Code, Title 17, Section 105)
Duration of Copyright
The Copyright Act of 1976 and the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years, or in the case of corporate authorship either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter). Laura Gasaway, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law Library, has created at excellent chart illustrating copyright term limits and public domain. See When Works Pass into the Public Domain.
Copyright Exemptions and Fair Use
The Copyright Act does include several exemptions or limitations to copyright protection (Sections 107-112). The broadest of these is fair use (Section 107). The fair use exemption states that "fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies ... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research, is not an infringement of copyright." (US Code, Title 17, Section 107)
For more information about Fair Use, read "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Copyright."
Copyright infringement is a serious offense and can include costly penalties. Copyright owners can seek "statutory damages" of as much as $30,000 for each work and those committing the infringement can be held responsible for court costs and attorneys' fees. If the infringer acted "willfully," with knowledge of infringement, the damages may rise to $150,000 for each work and the infringer may face criminal charges. The law does however, try to protect the educator or librarian in an academic community who reasonably believed his or her use was either a “fair use” under 17 USC sec. 107 , or another non-infringing use under sec. 108 et seq. The infringer would nonetheless be liable for any actual damages suffered by the copyright owner, as well as the infringer’s profits, if any. If an infringer can prove that he/she took reasonable steps in following copyright laws and guidelines, the court must reduce the statutory damages, which can be the most costly part of the penalties.
There is not a large body of case law dealing with copyright in educational settings; many sections of the law lend themselves to a variety of legal interpretations. Use this information as a primer to your study of copyright, but certainly consult legal counsel if you have questions regarding your use of copyrighted materials or concerns regarding infringement on your copyrighted works.