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What is copyright? How does it apply to me?

Copyright is a collection of exclusive rights that authors or creators have that protects their original works. It applies to most creators of original work including students. While creators are granted exclusive rights over their work, U.S. copyright law does provide for the fair use of copyrighted works without securing the copyright holder's permission for some purposes such as an demonstrable pedagogical need.

What is a fair use of copyrighted material? The answer to that question is not a straightforward as we might wish. It is almost always, "It depends." To determine if something is fair use, each case must be analyzed on its own merits and in light of the four factors of fair use. The four factors are the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount of the work used; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for work.



What you need to know

  • In the United States, most original works of authorship created since 1927 are protected by copyright.
  • Just because something is freely available on the web does not mean it isn't protected by copyright
  • Posting links to materials online (but not reposting the actual materials) does not violate copyright.
  • The types of original works protected by copyright include literature, music, dramatic works, dance, visual art (pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works), audiovisual works (including film, television and video recordings), sound recordings, and architecture.
  • Copyright holders have exclusive rights of reproduction or copying; distribution; public performance, including digital transmission; display; and preparation of derivative works.
  • There are exceptions to these exclusive rights such as the doctrine of Fair Use (see tab above).
  • Copyright applies to works that are unpublished as well as published.
  • Materials published before 1927 are no longer protected by copyright in the Unites States. Such materials are considered to be in the public domain and may be used freely without obtaining permission.
  • Works produced by the U.S. government are in the public domain.*
  • Once an original work is fixed in a tangible medium, the creator of that work holds the copyright on it. This includes you. You hold the copyright on your own original work until you assign it to another.
  • For works created since 1978, copyright protection lasts until 70 years after the death of the creator.

*Some government documents may include copyrighted material used by permission. Reproduction of copyrighted material within a government document does not place it in the public domain.

What is copyright?

Copyright refers to the exclusive rights the creator of an original work has to protect that work. These rights, listed in 106 of the Copyright Act are the rights to:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Fair Use

U.S. copyright law considers some unauthorized by the copyright holder usages of copyrighted works to be fair use of the works. Copyrighted materials used "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" may be a fair use and not require obtaining permission from the copyright holder. In determining if a use is fair, four factors must be considered. No single factor can determine fair use. For example, simply using any copyrighted work in a nonprofit educational setting does not make the use fair. All four factors must be considered and applied. The four factors are:

(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 used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Use this tool from Michael Brewer and the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy to help determine if a use of copyrighted material is a fair use.

Fair Use Evaluator

Use Links

It does not infringe on copyright to post links to anything online. Using links is a recommended method of sharing materials on the web.

Linking to UMass Lowell Electronic Resources

If you would like to share a full text article or ebook available in one of the libraries databases the first step is to locate a permanent or persistent link on the webpage.

In the case of Ebsco content, this link can most often be found on the right hand side of the page, in the list of actions. In some cases the permalink will appear if you click the "Share" option at the right of the page. Don't use the URL in your browser navigation bar! Not a permanent or persistent link.

In the case of articles from Proquest, there will be a permalink as one of the "Share" options at the upper right of the page. Click the elipsis icon to see it.

Articles in Jstor include permalinks at the left of the page. They offer versions both with and without the library's proxy prefix.

You can also add a prefix to the item's url. This prefix will direct users to log in to the UMass Lowell network with their email address and passwords. Once they have, they will be taken to the article or ebook. Simply add "" (without the quotation marks) to the beginning url of the article or ebook.

For example, "Debunking the Top Three Myths of Digital Sampling: An Endorsement of the Bridgeport Music Court's Attempt to Afford 'Sound' Copyright Protection to Sound Recordings" by Tracy L. Reilly published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts is available in full text in the libraries' online databases. The URL for the article is

Affix the prefix to the url like this: to allow users to log in as UMass Lowell members and access the article from off campus. If a user is on campus, the link will go to the article without needing a log in.

The Ebsco permalink will already include this proxy prefix so if you have an Ebsco permalink you don't need to add a proxy.

Confused? Contact the library. or

Online Education

The TEACH (Technology, Education And Copyright Harmonization) Act is a 2002 addition to U.S. copyright law. Its purpose is to address the performance or display of copyrighted materials in online courses offered by accredited nonprofit institutions. The TEACH Act offers some benefits to educators, however, in order to take advantage of them there are certain requirements that must be met.

Here is the text of the TEACH Act. The act is a section of the much larger 21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act. A pdf of the full text of the whole act is available from the U.S. Copyright office here. The TEACH Act begins on page 154. It is incorporated into the U.S. code in title 17 § 110.


    (a) Short Title.--This <<NOTE: 17 USC 101 note.>> subtitle may be
cited as the ``Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act of

    (b) Exemption of Certain Performances and Displays for Educational
Uses.--Section 110 of title 17, United States Code, is amended--
            (1) by striking paragraph (2) and inserting the following:
            ``(2) except with respect to a work produced or marketed
        primarily for performance or display as part of mediated
        instructional activities transmitted via digital networks, or a
        performance or display that is given by means of a copy or
        phonorecord that is not lawfully made and acquired under this
        title, and the transmitting government body or accredited
        nonprofit educational institution knew or had reason to believe
        was not lawfully made and acquired, the performance of a
        nondramatic literary or musical work or reasonable and limited
        portions of any other work, or display of a work in an amount
        comparable to that which is typically displayed in the course of
        a live classroom session, by or in the course of a transmission,

[[Page 116 STAT. 1911]]

                    ``(A) the performance or display is made by, at the
                direction of, or under the actual supervision of an
                instructor as an integral part of a class session
                offered as a regular part of the systematic mediated
                instructional activities of a governmental body or an
                accredited nonprofit educational institution;
                    ``(B) the performance or display is directly related
                and of material assistance to the teaching content of
                the transmission;
                    ``(C) the transmission is made solely for, and, to
                the extent technologically feasible, the reception of
                such transmission is limited to--
                          ``(i) students officially enrolled in the
                      course for which the transmission is made; or
                          ``(ii) officers or employees of governmental
                      bodies as a part of their official duties or
                      employment; and
                    ``(D) the transmitting body or institution--
                          ``(i) institutes policies regarding copyright,
                      provides informational materials to faculty,
                      students, and relevant staff members that
                      accurately describe, and promote compliance with,
                      the laws of the United States relating to
                      copyright, and provides notice to students that
                      materials used in connection with the course may
                      be subject to copyright protection; and
                          ``(ii) in the case of digital transmissions--
                                    ``(I) applies technological measures
                                that reasonably prevent--
                                            ``(aa) retention of the work
                                        in accessible form by recipients
                                        of the transmission from the
                                        transmitting body or institution
                                        for longer than the class
                                        session; and
                                            ``(bb) unauthorized further
                                        dissemination of the work in
                                        accessible form by such
                                        recipients to others; and
                                    ``(II) does not engage in conduct
                                that could reasonably be expected to
                                interfere with technological measures
                                used by copyright owners to prevent such
                                retention or unauthorized further
                                dissemination;''; and
            (2) by adding at the end the following:
            ``In paragraph (2), the term `mediated instructional
        activities' with respect to the performance or display of a work
        by digital transmission under this section refers to activities
        that use such work as an integral part of the class experience,
        controlled by or under the actual supervision of the instructor
        and analogous to the type of performance or display that would
        take place in a live classroom setting. The term does not refer
        to activities that use, in 1 or more class sessions of a single
        course, such works as textbooks, course packs, or other material
        in any media, copies or phonorecords of which are typically
        purchased or acquired by the students in higher education for
        their independent use and retention or are typically purchased
        or acquired for elementary and secondary students for their
        possession and independent use.
            ``For purposes of paragraph (2), accreditation--
                    ``(A) with respect to an institution providing post-
                secondary education, shall be as determined by a

[[Page 116 STAT. 1912]]

                or national accrediting agency recognized by the Council
                on Higher Education Accreditation or the United States
                Department of Education; and
                    ``(B) with respect to an institution providing
                elementary or secondary education, shall be as
                recognized by the applicable state certification or
                licensing procedures.
            ``For purposes of paragraph (2), no governmental body or
        accredited nonprofit educational institution shall be liable for
        infringement by reason of the transient or temporary storage of
        material carried out through the automatic technical process of
        a digital transmission of the performance or display of that
        material as authorized under paragraph (2). No such material
        stored on the system or network controlled or operated by the
        transmitting body or institution under this paragraph shall be
        maintained on such system or network in a manner ordinarily
        accessible to anyone other than anticipated recipients. No such
        copy shall be maintained on the system or network in a manner
        ordinarily accessible to such anticipated recipients for a
        longer period than is reasonably necessary to facilitate the
        transmissions for which it was made.''.

    (c) Ephemeral Recordings.--
            (1) In general.--Section 112 of title 17, United States
        Code, is amended--
            (A) by redesignating subsection (f) as subsection (g); and
            (B) by inserting after subsection (e) the following:

    ``(f)(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, and without
limiting the application of subsection (b), it is not an infringement of
copyright for a governmental body or other nonprofit educational
institution entitled under section 110(2) to transmit a performance or
display to make copies or phonorecords of a work that is in digital form
and, solely to the extent permitted in paragraph (2), of a work that is
in analog form, embodying the performance or display to be used for
making transmissions authorized under section 110(2), if--
            ``(A) such copies or phonorecords are retained and used
        solely by the body or institution that made them, and no further
        copies or phonorecords are reproduced from them, except as
        authorized under section 110(2); and
            ``(B) such copies or phonorecords are used solely for
        transmissions authorized under section 110(2).

    ``(2) This subsection does not authorize the conversion of print or
other analog versions of works into digital formats, except that such
conversion is permitted hereunder, only with respect to the amount of
such works authorized to be performed or displayed under section 110(2),
            ``(A) no digital version of the work is available to the
        institution; or
            ``(B) the digital version of the work that is available to
        the institution is subject to technological protection measures
        that prevent its use for section 110(2).''.
            (2) Technical and conforming amendment.--Section 802(c) of
        title 17, United States Code, is amended in the third sentence
        by striking ``section 112(f)'' and inserting ``section 112(g)''.

    (d) Patent and Trademark Office Report.--
            (1) In general.--Not later <<NOTE: Deadline.>> than 180 days
        after the date of enactment of this Act and after a period for
        public comment,

[[Page 116 STAT. 1913]]

        the Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, after
        consultation with the Register of Copyrights, shall submit to
        the Committees on the Judiciary of the Senate and the House of
        Representatives a report describing technological protection
        systems that have been implemented, are available for
        implementation, or are proposed to be developed to protect
        digitized copyrighted works and prevent infringement, including
        upgradeable and self-repairing systems, and systems that have
        been developed, are being developed, or are proposed to be
        developed in private voluntary industry-led entities through an
        open broad based consensus process. The report submitted to the
        Committees shall not include any recommendations, comparisons,
        or comparative assessments of any commercially available
        products that may be mentioned in the report.
            (2) Limitations.--The report under this subsection--
                    (A) is intended solely to provide information to
                Congress; and
                    (B) shall not be construed to affect in any way,
                either directly or by implication, any provision of
                title 17, United States Code, including the requirements
                of clause (ii) of section 110(2)(D) of that title (as
                added by this subtitle), or the interpretation or
                application of such provisions, including evaluation of
                the compliance with that clause by any governmental body
                or nonprofit educational institution.

©opyright Policy

The University of Massachusetts Lowell Libraries endeavor to comply with U.S. copyright law and avoid copyright infringement while asserting our rights and the rights of our patrons to fair use of copyrighted materials as provided in U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §107 and §108.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is intended to aid users in making decisions about copyright. It should not be construed as legal advice from a trained attorney.