What Is Copyright And How To Use It

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Ultimate Guide to Copyright for Students

The Internet has brought the issue of copyright to the forefront like nothing else in history. The ease and speed with which people can share digital information has also made it very easy to commit copyright infringement, intentionally or not.

As a student, you have terabytes of data available literally at your fingertips, which makes project research and paper writing easier than they’ve ever been before.

But it also means you must be more aware of copyright rules in order to avoid violating them.

Before you can successfully avoid committing copyright infringement, you must first understand what copyright is, and how it works.

What is Copyright?

Rather than indicating ownership, which is a common misconception, copyright instead provides protection to the creators of, as the U.S. Copyright Office states, “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

Copyright isn’t provided on the whim of the original author, either — it’s law.

In the United States, copyright law is administered by the U.S. Copyright Office. Other countries have similar counterparts, and while the actual laws and regulations may differ to a degree, the basic premise is the same.

What Does Copyright Protect?

You’re probably already aware that copyright protection is extended to things like books and photographs, but the list doesn’t end there. Other types of work protected by copyright include, but are not limited to: poetry, software, music, plays, songs, novels and other literary works, audio recordings, and even architecture. Copyright does not, however, protect intangibles such as ideas, methods of operation, or systems. In addition, copyright does not protect things that are not attributable to a creator, such as facts.

The exception in those cases is that copyright may protect the method of expression that conveys those things. For example, an idea that is written down, a book of fiction that contains a verifiable fact, or a diagram of a specific method of operation, may all be protected by copyright law.

One of the most important aspects of copyright is that it protects both published and unpublished works. For example, if you write a book but never have it published, and no one but you ever even reads it, your work is still protected by copyright law.

When Does a Copyright go Into Effect?

Immediately. As soon as you put pen to paper, brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard, and create something original, it is copyrighted. You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea to add the copyright symbol to the things you create. Not having the symbol doesn’t mean content isn’t still protected by copyright. Learn more in this easy-to-understand video:

How Long Does Copyright Last?

In general, for any type of work, the copyright is in effect from the time the author creates it, until that author’s death, plus another 70 years beyond the date of death. Copyright duration does vary, however, according to when the work was published and in what manner, and whether the copyright was renewed.

Original Authors

If you write a poem at the age of 20, it is immediately protected by copyright, and remains so for the duration of your lifetime. If you pass away at the age of 100, that poem will have been protected for 80 years, and the copyright will remain in effect for another 70 years after your death.

The copyright will be in effect for a total of 150 years. If you collaborate with two other people to create a new computer program, then the copyright is in effect throughout the life of the creator who lives the longest, and remains in effect for 70 years beyond the date of that person’s death.


It is possible to sell, also referred to as assign or transfer copyrights to others. This is how authors get their books published; they sell the rights to a publishing house. That publishing house then owns the copyright for that book. Corporate copyright ownership of works created after 2002 lasts longer than original author ownership; ?95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation, whichever expires first.


It is possible to bequeath creative works and their copyrights to people other than the original authors. For example, if you write a book, you can leave that book and its unsold rights to your heirs. If you do not specify in your will to whom you are leaving your creative works, they will most likely automatically pass to your heirs, but it depends on your state’s intestate (without a will) rules.

The point of all this is, never assume that because it’s been 70 years or more since the original creator of any work has passed away, their work is now freely available for your use.

Who Owns the Copyright?

The person or people who create an original work own the copyright. If you write a song, you own the copyright. If you collaborate with one other person to write a play, you both own the copyright.

However, there is an exception to this rule, and it applies to what are called “works made for hire.” If you are an employee of a company, and you create something?an e-book or a computer program?as part of your employment with that company (i.e., the work is performed as part of your job duties), these are works made for hire, and the company owns the copyright.

By the same token, if you’re a freelance writer, and someone contracts you to write a blog post for them, and they pay you for that blog post, then the post is a work made for hire, and the blog publisher owns the copyright to that content.

This is true in most cases, and copyright law does impose more restrictions here, but copyright ownership will most often default to the person or organization that pays you to create content for them.

In addition, if the company or entity for which you produced a creative work goes out of business, the copyright retention rules may remain in place.

This means that simply because a company ceases to exist does not necessarily mean they lose the copyrights they hold. They may be considered company assets, and can become part of debt settlement deals or bankruptcy proceedings, meaning they may be purchased by other entities. The copyright does not automatically revert to the original author.

Whether you’re a contractor or an employee, anything you create outside of those work arrangements, and for which you are not contracted or paid, belongs to you, and you retain the copyright.

Derivative Works

Content inspired by other content is called a derivative work. For example, when a movie is made from a book, the movie is the derivative work because it was derived from the book. In order to create a derivative work, you need permission from the creator of the original content, even if what you create is in a completely different medium, like a movie from a book.

However, copyright holders can choose to collaborate with and share copyright (and royalties) with derivative work creators, as demonstrated here:

How to Register a Copyright

While it’s not necessary to register a copyright in order to hold it, or for your work to be protected by it, copyright registration is possible, and is one avenue of protection you have available to you. Copyright registration is most often useful in situations where a creative work will be widely distributed, making it accessible to a large number of people. The more people who have access to something, the higher the probability that someone may attempt to copy that work in some way.

Registering the copyright documents the date of creation, and lists the original author as the owner of that work and its copyright, making it in a legal battle, should that ever become necessary.

It is true that simply by writing a story in a notebook, you own the copyright to that story.

However, if someone were to steal your notebook, publish your story under their name, and profit from it, you may have a difficult time proving ownership. This is where copyright registration provides a higher level of protection to original authors.

Registering a copyright is a fairly simple endeavor. It entails filling out a form provided by the U.S. Copyright Office, and paying a fee. You must also submit a copy of the work to be copyrighted.

Make sure it’s a copy and not the original because you will not get it back. Once the copyright has been issued, the work will be cataloged and stored in the Library of Congress.

What is Public Domain?

Works pass into public domain when their copyrights expire, are forfeited, or no longer apply. A couple of examples include the King James Bible, and William Shakespeare’s entire body of work. When something enters the public domain, two things happen:

  • it is freely available for public use
  • it is no longer available for private ownership

It’s important to remember, though, that copyright law varies from country to country, so it’s possible that a creative work may pass into the public domain in one country, yet still be protected by copyright in another.

What is Copyright Infringement?

It essentially comes down to using someone’s creative work without their permission. The simplest illustration of this is with photographic images.

If you publish a story online, and you use a photograph you found on the Internet, but you do not get the photographer’s permission to use that photo, nor do you pay to use the photo, you have infringed on that photographer’s copyright.

Copyright law

This is true even if you did not profit from the use of that photo. Profit does not determine infringement; use without the original author’s permission is the definitive factor.

Copyright infringement still exists even if you somehow alter the original work. For example, if you add elements to that photo that do not exist in the original, this is called a derivative work, and is still an infringement of the photographer’s copyright.

The copyright owner has the ability to dictate in what manner their work can be used. A photographer (or writer, or singer) may retain all rights, meaning their work can only be used by other through payment for licensing.

Or, the original creator may choose to allow others to use their work as long as those who do give proper attribution. If you use someone’s work without adhering to their conditions for use, you’re committing copyright infringement.

The Difference Between Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism

The most basic difference between the two is this: Plagiarism entails copying someone else’s work and taking credit for it as your own original work; copyright infringement entails using someone else’s work and not paying them for it.

For example, say you’re writing an essay, and you include a paragraph you read in the New York Times, word for word, and don’t cite the newspaper as the source. You’ve committed plagiarism.

If you include with your essay a photo taken by someone else, and you did not either get the photographer’s permission or pay them to use their photo, you have committed copyright infringement.

What Students Should Know About Copyright

Why is it important for you, as a student, to understand copyright? Because during your academic career (and possibly beyond, into your professional career as well), you will be called upon to write papers, essays, reports, and any number of projects.

You will be asked not only to present your original works and ideas in those projects, but to support them through citations of facts and the work of others.

Producing an original work of your own, and separating your thoughts and ideas from those of others, is essential to the ethical and respectable completion of your academic efforts.

Properly citing the work of others, and giving credit where credit is due, is not only legally required, it’s simply the right thing to do.

For more information: http://www.whoishostingthis.com/resources/student-copyright/

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Related Article: What Is Plagiarism?


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