In this video you will learn the basics about copyright, fair use, creative commons, and the public domain.

As a creator of information, you should understand your copyrights. 

Copyright is a legal concept that gives creators, such as authors and artists the right to control how their original creative works are used. This includes written works like books, poetry, and blog posts, as well as music, photos, films, and other kinds of visual media like paintings and sculpture. The original creator is the only person allowed to alter, distribute, or profit from their work, unless they choose to grant those rights to someone else. Although a creator does not have to legally register their copyright, doing so can help to protect their rights if their authorship is ever questioned or their copyright infringed. 

There are some limitations to copyright, though. In the United States, copyright only applies to original expressions that have been fixed in a tangible medium. For example, if you hum a tune that you just made up, that tune is not protected by copyright. But once you record it on your phone, you become the copyright holder to that tune. 

Copyright is also limited by time. In the United States the copyright on published works will expire after a certain number of years and fall into the public domain. 

The public domain consists of creative works that are not protected by copyright, including works whose copyright has lapsed, works that don’t bear copyright to begin with such as those authored by the United States federal government, and works that were donated to the public domain by creators who voluntarily gave up their rights to the work. Works considered to be in the public domain include the film Night of the Living Dead, the poetry and plays of Shakespeare, and The Art of War by Sun Tzu, although specific editions or translations may be protected under copyright. 

Just like some people can intentionally place their work in the public domain, they could also choose to openly license their work. An open license allows the creator to retain their copyright and communicate how other people can use it. Creative Commons licenses are the most common example of open licenses. You may have encountered Creative Commons licenses when searching Google for images, researching on Wikipedia, or while watching YouTube or Ted Talks.  

When using Creative Commons licenses, you can dictate that users credit you as the creator, can only use it for non-commercial purposes, can reuse all or portions of it, or must apply the same license to their work if they use any of yours. One type of Creative Commons license prohibits the creation of derivatives of the work. A derivative is a new and modified version of the original, like a screenplay based on a novel, or a translation into a different language. You could even apply a plain CC zero license, which allows you to remain anonymous and for others to use your work however they would like. Creative Commons is cool because it allows you to decide and communicate how people can use your work.  

As you can probably tell, copyright law is highly complex. So what do you need to know to ensure you don’t violate copyright law and infringe on someone’s rights? When using something for educational purposes, like for an assignment or presentation for class, your use of someone else’s work will often fall under a grey area called “fair use.” When you want to borrow another person’s work to use in an assignment, use the work in a limited amount or to a limited degree. Ask yourself, “can I get my point across by using a black and white image instead of full color? Is my presentation still effective if I use just a clip of this song instead of the whole thing?”  

If you have questions about copyright, open licensing, the public domain, or fair use, ask a librarian!