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IST 234N: Digital Cultures

Dr. Kelley Cotter


I am not a lawyer! The information provided in this guide does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available in this guide are for general informational purposes only.

For copyright consultation, contact The Office of Scholarly Communications and Copyright.


What is copyright?

Copyright law gives authors certain rights to control use of their works. It also grants users of copyrighted works the rights to use those works without permission in certain circumstances. Authors’ rights and users’ rights are in tension, but the balance between them helps achieve the constitutional purpose of copyright law.

What's covered?

Under U.S. law, copyright-eligible works are “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Three criteria must be satisfied:

  • Original: To qualify as original, the work must be created independently and must have “at least a modicum” of creativity.
  • Authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works and sound recordings, as well as other types of creative works including computer programs, architectural works, and compilations and derivative works. There must be a human author – works created solely by animals or supernatural beings are not eligible.
  • Fixed: A work must also be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” by or under the authorization of the author. Fixation is writing or otherwise recording copyrightable expression, whether it is on paper or a hard drive or in some other tangible form like painting or sculpture. Unfixed works like dance and music performances are not copyrightable (unless they are fixed, for example with videorecording).

What's NOT covered?

US copyright law does not protect “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” That means slogans, names, short names, methods, systems, processes, recipes, and procedures are not copyrightable.

--Pennsylvania State University, "Copyright," CC BY 4.0

Fair Use

Fair Use is legally defined in US Code Title 17, Section 107 to provide exceptions to the owners’ exclusive rights “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  Section 107 further states:

“In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature, or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

  2. The nature of the copyrighted work.

  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used in relation to the work as a whole.

  4. The effect of the use in question upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work."

While the law gives no particular weight to any of these four factors, courts have tended to heavily rely on the fourth factor when reviewing legal challenges to fair use.

--Pennsylvania State University, "Fair Use," CC BY 4.0