In talking with colleagues and students, I find that quite a few of them are confused about intellectual property, copyright, “fair use”, and public domain. The ready access to material on the Internet has added to the confusion. So I thought I would write a series of posts on the topic.
In this first post, I will define those terms and provide some useful links to additional information. Note that I am not an expert on copyright law; if you need legal advice, please contact an attorney.
Intellectual property is any creation arising from one’s mind. Such creations may be literary or artistic works, musical works, machines or devices, software, original processes, drugs or other chemical compounds, designs or images, and datasets, to name a few. Intellectual property is protected by either a trademark or service mark (for a name brand or logo) or by copyright (for a form of expression, such as a book or video). Read more at http://www.uspto.gov and http://www.copyright.gov.
A copyright is a type of protection afforded to the creator(s) of “original works of authorship” (literary, artistic, musical), both published and unpublished, for a period of time, which varies by country and other variables. As soon as a work is fixed in any medium (including the Internet), it is automatically copyright protected. Copyright only protects the form that the work takes, not the subject of the work itself. Ideas, facts, concepts, principles, and discoveries cannot be copyrighted. Read more at http://www.copyright.gov.
The term “fair use” refers to the limited use of another’s work without permission. It is generally used by those who create commentary, criticism, satire, review, or scholarly critiques in which small portions of the original work need to be displayed for illustrative purposes. The concept is often misunderstood and improperly applied, however. Read more at http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html. The application of fair use to video is thoroughly discussed in this video:
Works in the public domain can be freely used by anyone in any manner. However, it is not always easy to determine the status of a work. In the U.S., works published before 1923 are in the public domain, but guidelines for later works are more complicated and based on several criteria (date of creation, whether published or not, lifespan of the creator, whether copyright was renewed). Works created by a U.S. Federal Government (not state or local) employee in the course of their duties are also in the public domain; however, Federal agencies may employ contractors or hire a private company—their works may not be in the public domain. Read more and find additional links at http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/
Determining the true status of a work often involves quite a bit of sleuthing. Keep in mind that many works have been reposted on multiple websites, often without permission; tracking down the original content owner is your responsibility.