Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
UC Logo
Libraries | Ask the Libraries

Copyright FAQ

What is 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.​

- Copyright Basics. US Copyright Office.​

What is the Difference between Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism?

Copyright infringement and plagiarism might arise from the same actions, but the two are independent offenses, and copyright infringement is the only one of them punishable under federal law.

Plagiarism is the quoting or other incorporation of material that was created by someone else without your acknowledging its source, implying or otherwise leading to the inference that the incorporated material was your own.  The way to avoid plagiarism is to always attribute the work of others when you incorporate it into your own work, regardless whether you use direct quotations.

Copyright infringement occurs when you reproduce all or part of the work of others, if that is not allowed by one of the limitations, regardless whether you attribute the work to its original source.

If you copy someone else's material without attribution, then you may be committing both plagiarism and copyright infringement.  If you copy it while attributing it to the original author, but do not have the copyright holder's permission or are not within one of the limitations, you are not committing plagiarism but you may be infringing the copyright.

Although plagiarism is not a criminal offense, it is a serious breach of ethics, especially in an academic community. 

Is an Item Protected by Copyright?

The constitutional grant of copyright power to Congress expressly says the exclusive right is for "limited times." Therefore a copyright is not indefinite, and when it expires, the item enters the public domain.  You are free to use anything that is in the public domain.
The following tools will help you determine if an item is still under copyright:

What is Public Domain?

Public domain is a collection of materials that are not or are no longer protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the owner deliberately places it in the public domain (including U.S. government documents)
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.

- Modified from Copyright Basics (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

How Can I Find Public Domain and Openly Licensed Materials?

See under appropriate format

Are OER in Public Domain?

"Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”   -William Hewlett Foundation

More on OER

What is the General Rule for Using Copyrighted Material?

If you want to use copyrighted material, you must comply with copyright law in either of the following ways:

  1. Obtain the permission of the copyright holder.
  2. Take advantage of one of the limitations on the copyright holder's exclusive rights, such as fair use and TEACH Act.

How Do I Obtain the Permission of the Copyright Holder?

If you can readily identify the copyright holder, which is generally easy to do with commercially published materials, then you may communicate with the holder to request permission to use the materials. In some cases the identity or contact information of the copyright holder may be difficult to ascertain.

Some publications include a grant of specific permissions within their copyright statement. The organization Creative Commons publicizes a set of licenses with which a copyright holder can grant various levels of blanket permissions.

There are organizations that serve as agents for copyright holders and in some cases can help identify the holder.  The best known of these is the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). CCC represents publishers and other copyright holders and offers licenses for the use of materials.  You can search for materials it manages at its web site. You also can check the website of the publisher. Published sheet music used for performances is commonly licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). Films and videos that are to be shown in public performances outside of a classroom situation are licensed from Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. Note that videos you purchase at retail are generally licensed only for personal home use and may not be used for public performance. Classroom showings, however, may fall under the TEACH Act provisions..

You may find that obtaining permission is too costly, too time-consuming, or you cannot find someone with authority to grant it.  In that case you will need to rely on the fair use or TEACH Act provisions to use the material. You should never assume that your use of material is covered by those provisions; rather, you must be aware of the requirements of the provision and make a conscious determination whether your use is covered.

What Is Fair Use?

Some uses of copyrighted material are protected under the fair use provision of the US Copyright Act. Instructors must consider whether their proposed use of these materials is a fair use.

Factors that determine whether use is a fair use

  • purpose and character of your use
    • includes transformative use (creates a new work with a new purpose), including parody and transformative technologies
  • nature of the copyrighted work
  • amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • effect of the use upon the potential market

For application in the  classroom see the appropriate format (film and video, images, etc.).

See also Copyright and Fair Use for Faculty for common fair use scenarios.

What is TEACH Act?

The purpose of the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act is to balance the needs of distance learners and educators with the rights of copyright holders.

The TEACH Act covers distance education as well as face-to-face teaching which has an online, web-enhanced, transmitted or broadcast component. It exempts from liability the transmission, including over a digital network, of a performance or display of a copyrighted work by an accredited non-profit educational institution to students.

TEACH Act requirements:

In order for the use of copyrighted materials in distance education to qualify for the TEACH Act exemptions, the following criteria must be met:

  • The institution must be an accredited, nonprofit educational institution.
  • The use must be part of mediated instructional activities.
  • The use must be limited to a specific number of students enrolled in a specific class.
  • The use can be for either be for ‘live’ or asynchronous class sessions.
  • The transmission method must prevent retention longer than the class session and prevent its further dissemination to others.
  • The use must not include the transmission of textbook materials, materials “typically purchased or acquired by students,” or works developed specifically for online uses.
  • The institution must implement some technological measures to ensure compliance with these policies, beyond merely assigning a password. Ensuring compliance through technological means may include user and location authentication through Internet Protocol (IP) checking, content timeouts, print-disabling, cut and paste disabling.

The TEACH Act does NOT allow posting or digitization of certain specific items:

  • electronic reserves or course packs
  • material provided through interlibrary loan
  • textbooks or content provide under license from the author or publisher
  • conversion of materials from analog to digital formats, except when the converted material is used solely for authorized transmissions and when a digital version of a work is unavailable or protected by technological measures (DRM)

Please note:

  • The TEACH Act covers works an instructor would show or play during class such as movie or music clips, images of artworks in an art history class, or a poetry reading. It does not cover materials an instructor may want students to study, read, listen to or watch on their own time outside of class. For those activities we'll need to continue to rely on fair use or get permissions.
  • In order to retain protection offered by the TEACH Act, all materials used in the course must be legally obtained.

- Modified from "TEACH Act" - Copyright Crash Course (University of Texas)

For application in the classroom see the appropriate format (film and video, images, music, etc.).

Are Works Published Outside the US Protected by Copyright?

For works first published outside the U.S. see the comprehensive table in  Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University) for specific dates of publication, conditions, and copyright term in the United States.

Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends on the national laws of that country. However, most countries offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions that have been greatly simplified by international copyright treaties and conventions. The United States is a member of many treaties and conventions affecting copyright, including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

- Modified from International Copyright Relations of the United States (US Copyright Office)

If I Find It in a Library Database, Can I Use it?

Using Licensed Resources

Licensed electronic resources are restricted to members of the UC community and to on-site users of the UC libraries for purposes of research, teaching, and private study. It is the responsibility of each user to ensure that his or her use of these products is for non-commercial purposes only. In general, authorized users may access such products for noncommercial educational, scholarly, and research purposes. Under UC's licenses for electronic resources, users generally may not:

  • permit anyone other than authorized users to access or use the licensed materials
  • modify or create a derivative work of the licensed materials without the permission of the licensor
  • remove, obscure or modify any copyright or other notices included in the licensed materials
  • reproduce or redistribute licensed materials in bulk or in a systematic way, including systematic downloading
  • posting copyrighted materials on publicly accessible Web sites
  • use of “robots,” “spiders,” “crawlers,” or other software designed to automatically and systematically copy and download licensed resources
  • use materials for commercial purposes

Licensing Access to Institutional Resources

See http://guides.lib.utexas.edu/copyright/licensing (University of Texas)

What Are Library Policies with Regard to Copyrighted Materials?

The University of Cincinnati Libraries comply with the rights and restrictions provided by the Copyright Law when providing the following services:

  • provision of reserves
  • obtaining copies on interlibrary loan for campus library users
  • supplying copies of campus materials to other libraries in the state, the nation, and internationally.

It is important that you respect the copyright of the materials you receive on interlibrary loan. The copyright “warning” that you read when you place an interlibrary loan request explains that the law allows the Library to obtain copies for you from other libraries under certain conditions. One important condition is that the requested copy should only be used for your personal study, scholarship, or research.

University of Cincinnati Libraries

PO Box 210033 Cincinnati, Ohio 45221-0033

Phone: 513-556-1424

Contact Us | Staff Directory

University of Cincinnati

Alerts | Clery and HEOA Notice | Notice of Non-Discrimination | eAccessibility Concern | Privacy Statement | Copyright Information

© 2019 University of Cincinnati