Copyright law is a "limited monopoly" meant to encourage creativity and the production of knowledge. It gives a copyright owner the right to publish or perform an intellectual or cultural creation, and receive money for it. It has important limitations, including its duration (although under US current law, the duration can be well over a century). Every intellectual and cultural creation is protected as soon as it is produced. Some things can not be put under copyright, such as facts, ideas, and languages: only actual expressions or presentations -- words, images, etc -- can be copyrighted.
Fair use is a vital part of copyright law. It allows for circumstances in which people may use or reproduce the material without asking permission or paying a fee. The Supreme Court has observed that without the right to fair use, copyright would unconstitutionally restrict freedom of speech; scholarship would grind to a halt without it. There are no sharp rules or even rules of thumb for fair use: the concept is intentionally flexible. Fair use involves four major factors: 1) the purpose and manner of use; 2) the nature of the work used; 3) the amount used; and 4) the effect on the original work's market. Many people consider the first factor -- called transformative uses -- the most important. The amount used needs to be appropriate for that purpose (which sometimes means the entire work). "Transformative" is a broad term that can include the type of audience, the context, and the reasons for using the material. Educational or scholarly use is often but not always fair use: all four factors still apply.
Once the copyright to a work has expired (or if it never applied), the work becomes part of the public domain, meaning anyone can use it in any manner without permission or charge. Facts and ideas are always in the public domain. Being out of print does NOT place a book (movie, song, etc.) in the public domain: the legal copyright has to expire. However, there are oddities: for example, Shakespeare's works are in the public domain, but a modern edition of his works falls under copyright. (Basically, editorial work counts as a transformative use, which results in a new work that is protected by copyright.)
An increasing number of people want their work to be freely available to the public, with or without restrictions, even though copyright law applies to their work. "Copyleft" (a play on the word "copyright") is a way to achieve this. It grants everyone a license to use and share a work without requiring permission or payment. Usually the license requires attribution; sometimes it prohibits derivative works and/or commercial usages (unless granted further permission); and sometimes it requires derivative works to be shared under the same terms as the original. Copyleft is the main way people provide open access to their work. Some people go further, directly placing their work in the public domain. Works shared under a copyleft license or in the public domain, including facts and ideas, form the intellectual commons.
The idea here is "free as in unrestricted," not "free as in zero price" -- or as Richard Stallman put it, free as in "free speech," not "free beer." There is vigorous debate over free culture: its advocates argue that copyright (especially its lengthened duration and draconian protection) is strangling cultural expression and development; its opponents, often citing declining profits in the mainstream music industry, believe that it impedes economic growth or reduces artists' income. There is a difference between the free culture movement and the copyleft movement since certain copyleft licenses do not allow total freedom of use.
Students are sometimes surprised to learn that for their professors, showing good use of others' work is a much better indicator of intelligence and originality than creating the appearance that all of the ideas and information came from the student. Attribution is related to but distinct from copyright and fair use. Copyright and fair use are legal matters, but attribution is an ethical issue concerning intellectual honesty and respect. One should give other people credit for what they've done. Most copyleft licenses require attribution; even if they don't, it's good practice to include it. Attribution also indicates that you're striving to engage in fair use of copyrighted material -- although it isn't proof that your use is fair. Again, consider all four factors of fair use.
Be aware that, depending on the circumstances and severity of the case, failure to attribute sources (or to quote or paraphrase properly) sometimes constitutes plagiarism, which is a serious violation of college standards. (Using other people's papers is a hands-down offense.) So whenever possible, attribute your sources of information, quotations, images, videos, and sound clips. That goes for works in the public domain or
under copyleft, as well as fair use. Remember, attributing work is not the same thing as exercising fair use.
The information in this box is used courtesy of Yale University Libraries.
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