Who Owns This Work? An Overview of Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

How Do I Copyright My Own Work?

According to the United States Copyright Office (2012) document “Copyright Basics,” an original work enjoys copyright protections from the time of its creation. There is no need to register it with any government office (p. 1).  The work does not need to be published. Simply put, if you made it, it is yours. You own the copyright.

Copyright protections give you, the owner, the right to distribute, display, perform, and reproduce a given work. For the most part, if anyone else wants to use your work, they need your permission.

pink copyright

Image Credit: CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

What Is Protected by Copyright?

Copyright covers all original work, as long as it is in a “fixed in a tangible form of expression”—meaning recorded, written, or in some way fixed for longevity (U.S. Copyright, 2012, p. 3).

Covered properties include—

  • Written work of any kind
  • Music or recorded sound
  • Plays and choreographed dances
  • Art, including photographs, illustrations, sculptures, paintings, etc.
  • Architectural works
  • Movies, videos, and other “audiovisual recordings”  (p. 3).

Interestingly, spontaneous dance or informal speeches—if they are not recorded or written—are not covered by copyright protections (p. 3). Their ephemeral nature makes them intangible.

montage of faces from different types of art including self-portrait of van gogh

Image Credit: Husky via Wikimedia

Why Are So Many People Confused About Copyright?

Copyright law in the U.S. has changed a lot over the last 100 years, particularly regarding how a work enters the public domain.

For a glimpse at how complex these changes can be, look at Peter B. Hirtle’s  (2016) Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States. Hirtle’s chart answers esoteric questions like the following:

Question: What happens to an unpublished work when the death date of the creator is not known?

Answer: The work enters the public domain 120 years after the date of its creation, unless it was created before 1896.

The American Library Association (ALA)’s digital slider “Is It Protected by Copyright?” can help you find out when and how a work enters the public domain. For example, if you place the slider’s arrow next to 1923, you will see everything created in 1923 or earlier is now considered to be in the public domain. No permission is needed to use it. However, rest assured the rules get a lot more complicated after that.

One salient fact from the above ALA resource is any work created after March 1, 1989 is protected by copyright for seventy years after the death of the author. Permission is needed to use it, unless the use fits into a variety of exceptions, including fair use.

What Is Fair Use?

American Library Association sticker with a slogan about libraries being hip to fair use

Image Credit: Ana Hanks via Flickr

Fair Use is a section of the copyright code, which “provides parameters for the legal use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder” (Brewer, 2008). Fair Use is based on four considerations:

  1. Purpose—Why is the work being used? Is it for satire? News? Education?
  2. Nature—What is the nature of the original work?
  3. Amount—How much of the work is being used?
  4. Effect—How will this affect the copyright holder?

Fair Use is a big enough topic to be saved for another blog post, but anyone who is interested can see Brewer’s Fair Use Evaluator for a quick guide to how fair use can be argued.

What is Creative Commons and Why Should I Care?

a coffee mug on a creative commons coaster

Image Credit: Kristina Anderson via Flickr

Creative Commons is a nonprofit whose mission is to help creators “legally share [their] knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world” (Creative Commons, “What We Do”).

On Creative Commons’s Share Your Work page, creators can license their work under a variety of conditions:

  • Attribution—Users must give credit to the creator.
  • ShareAlike—Users must allow their versions of the work to also be shared.
  • NonCommercial—Users may not use the work for commercial purposes.
  • NoDerivatives (Creative Commons, “Licensing Types“)—Users may not modify the work without obtaining permission first.

Creative Commons is a great resource for two reasons:

  1. It provides an easy, guilt-free way for students, teachers, and all other digital content creators to legally use media they didn’t make themselves.
  2. The same content creators can license their own original work in support of the “share alike” ethos promoted by Creative Commons.

In short, Creative Commons solves a big problem of the digital era. Remixes, mash-ups, memes, and other multimedia creations have become irrevocable components of our online lives. Considering how easy it is to steal content through screenshots and screencasts, there needs to be an even easier way to use content ethically and legally. Creative Commons provides a solution.

Most importantly, through the “Share Your Work” self-licensing feature, content creators have a way to make sure their own contributions are valued. Creative Commons provides a model of what it means to be a digital citizen creating content on the web.

infographic explaining creative commons


American Library Association. (n.d.). Digital copyright slider.  Retrieved from http://librarycopyright.net/resources/digitalslider/

Brewer, B. and the American Library Association. (2008). Fair use evaluator. Retrieved from http://librarycopyright.net/resources/fairuse/

Creative Commons. (n.d.). Licensing types. Retrieved from https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/licensing-types-examples/

Creative Commons. (n.d.). Share your work. Retrieved from https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/

Creative Commons. (n.d.). What we do. Retrieved from https://creativecommons.org/about/

Hirtle, P.B. (2016). Copyright term and the public domain in the United States. Retrieved from http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

U.S. Copyright Office. (2012). Copyright basics. Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf


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