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First, the basics.

What is copyright?
Copyright is the legal protection granted to the creator of an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible form.

Is it necessary to publish a work before it can be copyrighted?
No. Both published and unpublished works can be protected by copyright.

What kinds of work does copyright protect?
According to the Copyright Act, works of authorship that qualify for copyright protection include: literature, poetry, and other literary works; musical compositions, lyrics, and sound recordings; newspaper and magazine articles; dance choreography; visual artworks (pictures, graphics, and sculptures); films and television programs; architectural plans; computer programs; website content; databases, and other compilations and collections.

Who owns the copyright in a work?
Generally, the person who creates the work owns the copyright. When a work is created by more than one person, all those persons own the copyright, unless there is a written agreement that delineates who owns it. Exceptions: When an employee or contractor creates a copyrighted work as part of job responsibilities, the employer owns the copyright; these are considered “works made for hire.”

What steps are required in order to copyright a work?
There are no required steps. Registering a copyright is optional; a work is protected by copyright from the moment it is created and fixed in tangible form. However, including a copyright notice on a work provides a public record that the work is copyrighted, and registration with the Copyright Office is required before statutory damages can be collected in an infringement case.

What is a copyright notice?
A copyright notice consists of the copyright symbol (©) or the word “copyright”, the name of the copyright owner, and the year of publication.

What steps are necessary in order to register a work with the Copyright Office?
Copyright application forms can be downloaded from the U.S. Copyright Office website,

How long does copyright protection last?
For works created on or after January 1, 1978, these terms apply: If the author is an individual, the term is the life of the author plus 70 years. If another party claims the copyright as a work made for hire, the term is 95 years from publication, or 120 years for unpublished works.

How does a copyright differ from a patent or a trademark?
Copyright protects original works of authorship. A patent protects inventions or discoveries, and a trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that are used to identify a source of goods or services.

Under what circumstances does something belong to the “public domain”?
Public domain is intellectual property that is not owned or controlled by anyone and is freely available for use. All works published before 1923 and certain works published between 1923 and 1978 that lack a valid copyright notice or a formal copyright renewal are considered in the public domain, as are works of the U.S. government.

Now some questions about copyright in the classroom.

Why is it important for educators to know about copyright?
Although copyright law includes a “fair use” provision for the educational use of copyrighted material, the law does not otherwise grant special privileges to educators. Teachers need to understand the limits of “fair use” in order to avoid violating the law inadvertently, and to be sure that their use of copyrighted material in the classroom sets a positive example for students.

Why is it important to teach students about copyright?
Aside from teaching respect for the law, lessons in copyright can reinforce respect for intellectual property through proper attribution of sources and guide students toward responsible use of computer technology. In addition, when they learn about copyright, students learn sound civic values and ethical decision-making, and gain knowledge that will help prepare them for success in a wide range of career paths.

 What are some common student misconceptions about copyright? 
  • Students who become accustomed to using copyrighted material in their schoolwork may come to think of themselves as somehow exempt from the laws that protect intellectual property rights, as if simply being a student were license to copy anything at any time. It is important to emphasize that while the law allows students to use copyrighted material for school, it strictly prohibits copying copyrighted material without permission for other purposes.
  • Some students believe that copyright law makes an exception for “personal use” of copyrighted material. It does not. Sharing copies of music, movies, photos, video games, and software is copyright infringement. In fact, sharing copyrighted materials through online networks such as a peer-to-peer (P2P) network without permission from the owner is a copyright violation subject to some of the most severe penalties provided by
    the law. 
  • Students may confuse their right of ownership as the purchaser of a copyrighted work with the intellectual property rights of the work’s creator. They should understand that they do not actually own all the rights to the music, movies, video games, and software that they purchase. The copyright owners retain some of those rights and are selling a limited license to use the work.

The fine points: fair use, plagiarism, and piracy.

What is fair use?
Fair use is technically a defense to copyright infringement that allows a person to reproduce or otherwise make use of a limited portion of a copyrighted work without permission for certain purposes. Although the limits of fair use are not always clear, permitted purposes generally include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, and scholarly research.

What are the four fair use factors?
These are the factors weighed by a judge in determining whether to accept a fair use defense. The first takes into account “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.” The second factor considers “the nature of the copyrighted work,” meaning that those that are creative in nature, such as a musical composition, sound recording, motion picture, video game, etc., would receive more protection than fact-based works. The third factor considers “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole,” meaning that use of an entire work is less likely to be found to be a fair use. The fourth factor considers “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?
Except in circumstances covered by fair use, the law prohibits any use of copyrighted material without permission. The fair use doctrine allows for the use of limited portions of works for certain purposes, but there are no rules regarding specific number of words, musical notes, etc.

What constitutes plagiarism in the classroom?
Outside the classroom, plagiarism can be defined as word-for-word copying. In the classroom, however, the definition expands to include the misrepresentation of someone else’s work –– including facts, ideas, or concepts –– as one’s own without proper attribution.

What is piracy?
Piracy is intellectual property theft. Misuse of technology enables almost anyone to produce illegal copies of text, images, movies, music, video games, and software.

Last, some how-to’s.

How do I get permission to use someone else’s work?
Contact the copyright owner directly and ask for permission. For material on a website, check the site’s terms of use page or contact the webmaster for information. In other cases, you can search online for contact information or contact the publisher. For many published works, you can search the Copyright Clearance Center at to determine if the work is in their library and available for permission on a pay-per-use basis.

Where can I find more information about copyright?
For additional information, visit the websites of the United States Copyright Office ( and The Copyright Alliance ( Remember, some works like U.S. Government documents are in the public domain and are freely available for use.


Who we are

The Copyright Alliance Education Foundation is the 501(c)3 nonprofit charitable arm of the Copyright Alliance dedicated to developing educational programs aimed at helping America's next generation of creators succeed.

what teachers are saying
"I like your materials and your website and am using them to teach my 3rd, 4th and 5th graders about copyright issues." M. S., Silverthorne Elementary, Silverthorne, CO
"I've been waiting/searching for a resource. This is great!" G.D., Highland Elementary, Owensboro
"This will be beneficial to our staff. Plan to present it in our next in-service in February." S.F., Kankakee Valley Intermediate, Wheatfield, IN
"Will use in the future. We have a copyright workshop for staff coming up." L.M., Maple Ave. Elementary, Goffstown, NH


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