The concept of copyright as we know it today dates back hundreds of years. The purpose of copyright is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by granting creators exclusive rights in their creative works. This grant of rights to creators is balanced out by certain exceptions and privileges granted to users.

In higher education, copyright affects all areas of our work: teaching, scholarship, and professional development. As teachers, we use copyrighted materials in the classroom to facilitate learning. As scholars, we produce a vast array of new knowledge often published in monographs and journals. As professionals, we share our research with colleagues from around the world. In each of these instances, a basic understanding of copyright is critical.

Copyright is complicated. Black and white answers are the exception rather than the rule. This often frustrates faculty and students alike. This site was created by the UAB Libraries to provide reliable copyright information to the UAB community. Nothing on this site should be construed as legal advice.

Frequently Asked Quesetions

What is copyright?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects creator of "original works" including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works by granting to them exclusive rights to do or allow others to do the following things:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works based on the original
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, but it may protect the way these things are expressed. For example, facts in a history text are not protected by copyright, but the book in which those facts appear would be.

When does protection begin?
Protection begins at the moment an original work is created and fixed in a "tangible medium of expression." It is no longer necessary to include the copyright symbol on a work to receive protection. There are benefits to doing so, however, including to identify the copyright holder.

How long does copyright last?
This is a complex question and depends on a number of factors including whether it was published, and if it was, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for 70 years past the life of the author. Anonymous works, pseudonymous works, or works for hire have a copyright duration of 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. For works published before 1978, copyright duration varies depending on several factors including whether legal formalities were met and whether the copyright registration was renewed. Cornell University has an excellent resource to help determine copyright status.

What is Fair Use?
Fair use allows a person to use a reasonable amount of a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright holder. The law calls for a balanced application of the four fair use factors when determining if a use may be considered a fair use. Each use must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately there are no one size fits all answers when considering fair use. The four fair use factors, as found in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, 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.

To help with your fair use analysis, Columbia University has created a Fair Use Checklist that can be used to more thoroughly explain and help you weigh each factor.

Additional Copyright Resources

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