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Copyright, Creative Commons, & Fair Use Guide


About Copyright

"Copyright" refers to laws created by a country grants creators of original works exclusive rights over how a work is used and distributed for a certain period of time. Copyright laws can differ by country, as there is no universal copyright law. 

These rights usually cover attribution, reproduction, distribution, public performance, and derivative works, hence "All Rights Reserved."

The original purpose of copyright laws in the United States was to encourage creative and artistic endeavors by granting creators rights that would allow them to profit commercially off their creative works for a set amount of time, after which the works copyright would expire along with the creators rights to that work. Currently in the U.S. all "fixed works" (meaning it has been published or recorded, and is not just a thought or idea) are automatically copyrighted, but filing with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is under the Library of Congress, will make it easier to defend one's copyright in court.

Though copyright terms in the U.S. have changed over the years, a general rule of thumb for current copyright terms is the authors life plus 70 years (after their death).

Licensing Copyrighted Works

Copyright holders can set terms for how their works are used through the granting of licenses. A license may transfer all or only some of the copyright holder rights under certain conditions which may include a fee, royalties, a set amount of time, or for a specific use. 

Using copyrighted works without a licenses is considered infringing on the rights of the copyright holder and can result in legal action being taken by the copyright holder. Under U.S. copyright law, the burden of defending copyright falls to the rights holder whether it's an individual creator, publisher, company, or institution like a university.

Creative Commons (CC)

About Creative Commons

Founded in 2001, Creative Commons allows creators to apply more flexible copyright licenses to their works that allow for reuse, adaptation, and remixing. This was a direct response to the ease of sharing information on the internet, where some creators felt a traditional "all rights reserved" copyright was too restrictive.

Creative Commons is not the absence of copyright. Creative Commons is a licensing system that allows the rights holder to specify how the work may be reused without having to field individual license requests.

Creative Commons Licenses

These are the four basic building blocks of the CC license. They can be combined to provide various levels of access depending on the creators wishes:

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial,

No Derivative Works:
This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you

Share Alike:
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.  This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

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More on Creative Commons

Fair Use

Four Factors of Fair Use

Generally, under copyright law, one has to get the permission of the rights holder (a license) to use their original work. However, there are factors under the Fair Use statute in U.S. copyright law that allow for the unlicensed use of copyrighted material.

While more factors may come be considered, the four factors made explicit in the Fair Use statute are:

  1. The purpose and character of the proposed use
  2. The nature of the work being used
  3. The amount of the work being used
  4. The effect of the use upon the market for the copyrighted work

It is important to know that Fair Use is a defense against claims of copyright infringement. It is up to the court to decide if the unlicensed use is "Fair Use" or if the use violates copyright. No one factor is necessarily more important than another - it depends on the courts interpretations of each case.

Transformative Use

Transforming a work to use it in new and unexpected ways can also be considered Fair Use. 

Parody is the most widely recognized type of transformative use but the rise of the internet continues to push the boundaries of what is considered transformative. For example, the digitizing of books for the purpose of data mining (and not reading) has been considered transformative. However, what may be considered transformative depends on the medium and the culture surrounding that medium. Music sampling and remixes may be transformative, but currently those uses have not been deemed protected by Fair Use in court.

More About Fair Use

Public Domain

Public domain generally refers to works with expired copyright, though some creators choose to publish original work free of any copyright restrictions.

Expired Copyright

When a work's copyright term expires, there are no longer legal restrictions placed on how it can be used. In the United States, any works published 95 years ago (or earlier) are in the public domain. Additionally some types of government documents and other sources are automatically in the public domain.

The general rule of thumb for copyright terms in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 70 years, though there are numerous exceptions. 

CC0 License

A tool to designate the creator relinquishes any inherent rights to original work; the CC0 license is a way to clarify the creators intent no matter the copyright laws of different locations and jurisdictions.

Open Access

Open Access refers to materials that are created and shared free of cost. This includes articles, books, journals, and other resources.

Open Access does not mean copyright free or public domain, though many authors and publishers who make their work open access often apply Creative Commons licenses to the work.

If a Creative Commons license is applied, it will specify the conditions for reuse. If a Creative Commons license is not applied, assume that the creator retains all rights granted under copyright law.