What you need to know about Copyright

Basics of Copyright

What is copyright?
What can be copyrighted?
What cannot be copyrighted?
What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing?
Copyright Ownership
Can I avoid infringement by crediting the source?
What happens to copyright in cyberspace?
What should I be aware of when I create a website?
What about linking to other material?
Copyright Issues With Using Photos Found On The Web
What is the public domain?

What is copyright?

Copyright is the lawful right of an author, artist, composer or other creator to control the use of his or her work by others. Generally speaking, a copyrighted work may not be duplicated, disseminated, or appropriated by others without the creator’s permission. The public display or performance of copyrighted works is similarly restricted. Generally the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is copyright infringement, and may subject the infringer to civil and criminal penalties under federal law.

What can be copyrighted?

Broadly speaking, one can copyright any original work of authorship that can be “fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” such as written on paper, or encoded on disk or tape, or recorded on film. This includes fiction and nonfiction writings, poetry, musical compositions (words and music alike), sound recordings, photographs, paintings and drawings, sculpture, architectural works, databases, audiovisual works such as movies, and multimedia works such as those on compact discs. Computer programs can be copyrighted, and almost always are. Unless a program is clearly denoted “freeware”, it is copyrighted.

Unlike a patent, the degree of creativity necessary to qualify for a copyright is very modest. Virtually any original work—even a casual letter, or a compilation of information that involves some originality in selection or arrangement, such as a directory, an anthology, or a bibliography—can be copyrighted.

Eight categories of works are copyrightable:

  • Literary, musical and dramatic works.
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works.
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.
  • Sound recordings.
  • Motion pictures and other AV works.
  • Computer programs.
  • Compilations of works and derivative works.
  • Architectural works.

What cannot be copyrighted?

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes are not copyrightable.
Example: The list of ingredients for recipes are not copyrightable. However, the recipes’ instructions are protected.



  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans are not copyrightable.
Example:  Nike’s slogan “Just do it” is not copyrightable. However, a slogan can receive trademark protection as is the case in the example.



  • Facts, news, and research are not copyrightable.
Example:  A standard calendar.



  • Works in the public domain are not copyrightable.
Example 1:  Works created by United States government employees, where the works they created are a result of what they were hired to do.

Example 2:  Work published in the United States prior to 1923.



  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
Example:  Extemporaneous speeches that are not written or recorded.


What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing? 

Subject to certain limitations, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce the work by making copies of it;
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, donation, rental, or lending;
  • prepare new works derived from the original (for example, a novel adapted into a play, or a translation, or a musical arrangement); and
  • publicly perform or display the work.

Anyone who does any of these things without authorization infringes the copyright and can be liable to the copyright owner for damages.

Copyright Ownership

In the first instance, the creator or author of a work will own copyright in it. This can vary according to employment agreements or other licensing agreements. In the University environment copyright ownership is determined as follows:

  • The University owns copyright in all material created by professional staff and all teaching material
  • Academics own copyright in all scholarly material they create
  • Students own copyright in all material they create
  • External parties will own copyright in any material they create, unless there is an agreement with the University stating otherwise. These guidelines will determine how copyright is assigned to material created for a blog, wiki or podcast etc. In a single blog entry for example, copyright will be owned by the person who wrote the entry, however, anyone who comments on the blog entry will own copyright in their own comments. In a wiki, contributors will own copyright in

the material that they create, but they generally agree to allow their material to be copied, modified and redistributed.


Can I avoid infringement by crediting the source?

No. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different things. Plagiarism is the misappropriation of another’s work, passing it off as your own without indicating the source. It is possible to plagiarize a work without infringing the copyright—for example if you take another’s ideas without proper attribution, even though you do not copy the language, or you borrow from a work whose copyright has expired. Conversely, it is possible to infringe without plagiarizing. Properly citing the work you are copying does not avoid liability for infringement.

What happens to copyright in cyberspace?

Because the electronic environment presents us with new media, and even calls into question the concept of works “fixed” in a “tangible medium,” a great many questions challenge the conventions of copyright doctrine. Congress and the courts are struggling to keep up with new technology, and the opinions of scholars and commentators on how the law should cope with these new changes are in lively conflict.

Nonetheless, certain principles endure. The first and most important is that there is copyright law in cyberspace. A work that is available electronically—even if it is available only electronically—is as eligible for copyright protection as a work in any other medium. Thus, the fact that you can download text or graphics does not mean that the material is not copyrighted. And the ability to download a copyrighted work does not mean that you are free to disseminate that work to others, either electronically or in hard copy.

Those who put their work on the Internet and wish to control its use should use the copyright designation, just as they would do in print or any other medium.

You should abide by the following principles when you access a database or other electronic source of information from your own computer.

  • You are free to read, watch or listen to any material to which you have authorized access, even if it is copyrighted. (In some cases you may have to pay a fee to do this.)
  • Because downloading material to your own computer necessarily makes an electronic copy of it (and because printing what you’ve downloaded makes another copy), a copyright owner is entitled to prohibit downloading and printing.
  • Remember that the site owner is not necessarily the copyright holder of the site’s content. A site owner may hold the copyright to some materials but not others, or to none of it. Requests for permission should be directed to the copyright holder, not necessarily the website owner.
  • Look for a copyright notice on the material. The notice may be on the opening screen, a home page, an “About this Program” screen, or at the beginning or end of individual items (such as an article or a graphic) within the database.
  • If you are in a commercial database that charges a fee for searching material, and also permits you to download or print the material through mouse or key-stroke commands, you may assume that the copyright owner has authorized the operator of the database to allow users to download and print. You may pay an additional fee for this privilege. Multiple copies for classroom use may require additional fees.

What should I be aware of when I create a website?

If you create a website and wish to post copyrighted material on it, you must obtain the permission of the copyright holder, just as you would for more traditional media, unless fair use or another exemption applies. See the following section for a discussion of fair use and its application to course websites.

If you are requesting permission to post material for the use of students in a Old Dominion course, your request should specify that the material will be restricted (for example, by password or student ID number) to students enrolled in the course, and that the site will be deactivated at the conclusion of the course. Specify the expected enrollment. This information lets the publisher know that the material will not be available to the public, and allows publishers to set fees according to the number of users.

Old Dominion faculty and academic staff who create course web pages should consult their school’s experts in this area (for example, ITS Information Technology Services), who can provide technical assistance and may be able to help with permissions. You should also consult your school’s librarian or reserve desk; “electronic reserves” may allow students access to digital sources through the library.


What about linking to other material?

Like other aspects of digital media, the law relating to links from one website to another is not entirely settled. Generally, however, you should not have a problem if you simply post a link to another site, even if that site contains copyrighted material. In such a case, you are not publishing the material; you are simply pointing the way to someone else’s publication.

You should not, however, provide a link to a site that you have reason to know is violating copyright law—for example, a site that illicitly allows the free downloading of copyrighted software, music, or other material. You may reasonably assume that a website has the right to include the material found there, unless you have reason to know it is infringing. If you have reason to know that the website is infringing another’s copyright in providing the material to which you would like to link, you should not create the link.

If the site you wish to link to specifies particular requirements or restrictions concerning linking (e.g., in its “Terms of Use”), you should generally comply with them or seek permission if you wish to depart from them. Ordinarily, sites that require users to enter a user name and password do not permit linking that would bypass that process.

When you construct a link, be sure that it simply sends the user to another site. If you actually bring the material onto your own site, or “frame” it, you may be infringing copyright and may also mislead users as to the source of the content.

Copyright Issues With Using Photos Found On The Web

If you are thinking about using photos from the internet on your web pages, these photos usually have a copyright and you have to get permission to use them.

The best practice would be to use only photos that the university has taken. They have a large library of photo that can be used without the worry of copyright infringement.

What is the public domain?

The public domain consists of all works that never had copyright protection and works that no longer have copyright protection. The public domain also includes most works created by the United States government. All works in the public domain are free for the public to use. Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain.


Census reports, which are compiled and published by the United States government are in the public domain.