The Law

U.S. copyright law starts with the Constitution, which says that Congress has the power "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors . . . the exclusive Right to their . . . writings" (Art. I, Sect. 8).

The Copyright Act then clarifies that it protects all kinds of expression or authorship that are fixed in tangible medium – including written works, paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, recorded music, sheet music, computer programs, video games, architectural design, and choreography.

The Copyright Act DOES NOT protect facts, data, or ideas.  But it does protect the fixed expression of ideas.

Copyright protection starts when the expression is fixed in a tangible medium, regardless of whether the work has been published, registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, or marked with a copyright notice.

For works created after 1977, copyright protection generally lasts for the life of the author/creator plus 70 years.

During the years of copyright protection, the author/creator possesses certain exclusive rights:

  1. the right to copy the work;
  2. the right to create derivative works;
  3. the right to distribute the work; and
  4. the right to display, perform or broadcast the work.

These rights are limited by statutory exemptions designed to encourage certain educational, artistic and scholarly uses of copyrighted works. The exemptions are essential to the teaching and research mission of colleges & universities.

  • The Fair Use exemption
  • The Face to Face teaching and Distance Education exemptions
  • Library exemptions

Who owns the Copyright?

The creator is ordinarily the owner of a work, but owners can transfer some or all of the rights to a work. Employers own the work of their employees, as Princeton owns the work of its staff, unless otherwise specified. Publishers often require authors to sign a contract which transfers all or some of the copyright to the material to the publisher. Faculty can suggest contract modification, to retain some of their copyrights using the (PDF) Addendum to Publication Agreement.

Using Copyrighted Materials

Copyright protection gives the creator exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, publicly display/perform/broadcast the work, and the exclusive right to make derivative works. The creator can choose to allow certain uses by the public, such as through a Creative Commons license, and may even donate the work to the “public domain.” The public domain is the legal term for works that are available without copyright restriction. Key types of public domain works are:

  • Works created by the U.S. government
  • Works for which copyright protection has lapsed, including materials published in the U.S. before 1926 and materials published in the U.S. without a copyright notice between 1926 and 1989 (Note: the references to 1926 are effective for 2021 and will increase by an additional year each year after 2021.)
  • Works expressly donated to the public domain.

Learn More: U.S. Copyright Code, 17 U.S.C. § 102(b)