Tips for understanding copyright rules

U.S. copyright rules are often confused with other intellectual property protections, such as patents, trademarks, and trade secrets; contract law and licensing; fair use guidelines; and plagiarism.

Plagiarism in particular confuses people, because a person can infringe on copyright and plagiarize a work at the same time, or can do one or the other separately.

For instance, Russell said, if a person takes a work and copies and sells it, that person is infringing on U.S. copyright law. But if the person also claims to have written the work, he or she is plagiarizing as well.

When it comes to copyright rules, fair use is perhaps the most important thing for all librarians to know. It is unlikely, Russell said, that teachers or librarians would be taken to court for copyright infringement—although it still could happen—because Section 504(c)(2) limits statutory damages for alleged copyright infringers who work at a nonprofit educational institution.

Fair use guidelines for different types of works include:

Motion media: Up to 10 percent or 3 minutes, whichever is less, of a single copyrighted motion media work.

Text material: Up to 10 percent or 1,000 words, whichever is less, of a single copyrighted work of text.

Poems: An entire poem of less than 250 words, but no more than three poems by one poet or five poems by different poets from a single anthology. In longer poems, the 250-word limit still applies, plus no more than three excerpts by one poet or five excerpts by different poets from a single anthology may be used.

Music, lyrics, and music video: Up to 10 percent, but no more than 30 seconds of music and lyrics from a single musical work. Any alterations of a musical work shall not change the basic melody or the fundamental character of the work. For example, a music instructor could use a piece of music and change the rhythm or emphasis on certain instruments to show how this would alter the music. However, the basic melody still must be recognizable.

The fair use doctrine includes four factors.

Purpose of the use: Why do you want to use a copyrighted work? Educators should determine if the use is nonprofit and educational or for-profit and commercial.

Nature of the publication: What is the material the educator is using? Is the material published and already available in the marketplace, or is it something that has never been public, such as unpublished diaries? It is less likely that the use of unpublished materials will be considered fair use, because unpublished works are more protected. Traditionally, courts have rules that works such as motion pictures or music are more creative and deserve more copyright protection than something such as a newspaper article, which is composed of facts.

Laura Ascione

"(Required)" indicates required fields