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Copyright: Introduction to Copyright

A guide to understanding copyright laws and applications in the classroom and research.


Copyright laws protect works.  The complexity of copyright laws often inspires anxiety, and the, at times, vague meanings and exceptions of things like fair use and public domain make understanding your rights as an educator,  very difficult.  This guide is designed to simplify copyrights laws and clarify your rights to use other works for educational purposes.

Copyright Law in the United States is defined by Title 17 of the United States Code, the complete text of which can be viewed HERE.

Go the the Copyright in the Classroom guide HERE

The information in this guide is based on recommendations by the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library Copyright Institute a project coordinated by Duke University, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, whose work is oriented around helping libraries provide useful and accurate information about copyright law and practices for their communities.

Click HERE to take Richardson Library's online Copyright Course

Click HERE to see Morgan State's Intellectual Property Policy.

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Understanding Copyright

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. An original work of authorship is a work that is independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work is “fixed” when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed. 

What Can be Copyrighted?

Examples of copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works,
  • Computer programs,
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words, 
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music, 
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works, 
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, 
  • Maps and technical drawings,
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works, 
  • Sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, 
  • Architectural works.

 What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

Examples of things not protected by Copyright:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries, 
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down), 
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans, 
  • Familiar symbols or designs, 
  • Variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring, 
  • Listings of ingredients or contents.

For more information, see:

Copyright Circular 1 "Copyright Basics"

Copyright Circular 33 "Works Not Protected by Copyright"

Reference and Government Documents Librarian

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Bryan Fuller
Earl S. Richardson Library
Room 127-A
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