Skip to Main Content

Copyright: Copyright Information for Faculty

United States Copyright Law (Title 17)

What Works are Copyrighted?


In the United States, copyright is a set of legal rights granted to an author or creator of an original work. Copyright  protection covers the work the moment it is fixed in a tangible medium such as paper, computer code, film, canvas and paint, clay, analog or digital sound recordings, etc.

A wide range of original works are eligible for copyright protection, including:

  • Literary works, such as books, articles, novels, poetry, web pages, blog postings and even email messages 
  • Dramatic works such as plays
  • Artistic works including paintings, sculptures, photography
  • Musical works such as operas and songs
  • Theatrical works including plays, mime, choreographic works
  • Architectural works

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

Works that are protected by copyright do not have to be published, do not have to bear the familiar copyright notice (c) and do not have to be registered with the U.S. Register of Copyright. These formalities of copyright were made optional under US law several decades ago. Nowadays you may still find works marked by the copyright symbol or deposited with the Copyright Office but, more commonly, many copyrighted works do not bear any notice. This is particularly true on the Internet, where millions of users upload copyrighted text, images, sounds and video to their web pages, blogs, FaceBook accounts, and other sites.  Users are expected to know that unmarked works may be fully protected by copyright and to understand how to use these works properly.

The Copyright Owner's Rights

When a work is protected by US copyright, the owner of that work has the exclusive right to:

  1. COPY the work, whether by hand, photocopier, scanner, camera. Etch-A-Sketch, or other means;
  2. DISTRIBUTE the work, whether to colleagues, relatives, or five million friends on FaceBook.
  3. MODIFY the work by reformatting, resizing, translating, adapting it for the Big Screen, etc.
  4. DISPLAY the work in public or by transmission over a network.
  5. PERFORM the work in public  or by transmission over a network.

Copyright owners also have the exclusive right to grant other people permission to use their works in any of the ways listed above.

Must I Always Ask For Permission?

Asking permission is the safest way to make sure you are in compliance with copyright law, but it is not necessary in every case.

You do NOT have to ask permission when:

  • Your use fits within one of the exceptions to the copyright owner's rights.  The most well known exception is Fair Use
  • Permission has already been granted through a license
  • The work is in the public domain and hence not protected

Is it OK?

| Copy | Share | Scan | Change | Play | Display


 You no doubt prepare papers, projects, and other assignments that require you to consult and draw on works created by others.  These works contain valuable information that is necessary for your studies, research, creative pursuits, and service activities on campus. And these works may also be protected by copyright, the federal law that governs how original works may be copied, modified, distributed and shared.

If you are using any sort of material that you yourself did not create, you need to think carefully about copyright. Using someone else's copyrighted material without permission could constitute copyright infringement, an illegal and unethical act that violates not only US law but also the Aggie Honor Code, as well as other professional and research standards of conduct.

To comply with copyright law and with standards for ethical conduct, you need to do one of three things:

  • Determine that your use qualifies for one of the limitations to the copyright holder's rights, such as Fair Use OR
  • Use materials that are free of copyright restrictions because they are in the public domain, or they are published with an open license for use OR
  • Obtain permission for your use from the copyright holder. 

How do you know what approach to take in your particular situation?  That's what this Guide is designed to help with.  Here you will find some brief explanations of key copyright concepts as well as resources for learning more.

Ultimately, everyone makes his or her own decision as to whether, or how, to use copyrighted works in a legal and ethical way. The information and resources are offered here to provide helpful and reliable information you can use to make that decision.


Public Domain and Licensed Works

Three categories of materials that are free to use without copyright concerns are:

1. Public Domain: Works not protected by copyright.

This category includes older works for which copyright has expired; works for which the creator has   chosen to forfeit all rights; and many works created by employees of the U.S. government as part of their regular assignment. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.

2. Openly Licensed Materials:

This category includes works that are copyrighted, but have been licensed for certain uses by their copyright owners. For example, some authors and artists choose to share their works using a Creative Commons license that allows other users to copy, distribute, and sometimes even modify the works without asking permission. 

3. Library Licensed Materials:

The Westchester Community College Library license a wide variety of databases, electronic journals, image collections and other useful resources. Some kinds of uses are allowed to WCC students, faculty and staff as part of the licensing agreements for these resources. If you want to copy, share, modify, display or perform any of the resources provided by the WCC Library, check the 'Terms &* Conditions' page included within  that resource to see which, if any, uses are allowed.

It is up to each individual user to comply with the terms and conditions of all resources provided by the Libraries.

Fair Use

What Is Fair Use?

  • Fair Use is an exception in US Copyright law that allows users, under certain conditions, to freely use copyrighted works without the copyright owner's permission.
  • Generally speaking, a use falls under Fair Use if its benefits to society outweigh economic harm to the copyright owner.
  • Types of uses that Courts have historically deemed to be Fair Use include quoting material in a review or critique; news reporting; time-shifting of a broadcast (recording it to watch at another time); making multiple copies of a work for classroom use; and parody. Other uses may be fair as well. These are just examples.
  • If a use is a FAIR USE, permission from the copyright owner is not needed and no licensing fee is required. In essence, the permission to use another's copyright work is being given by US Copyright Law itself.

How will you know if your use is, in fact, Fair?

  • It is not known for sure if a use is FAIR USE or an infringement until the case goes to court and the judge makes a ruling.  For this reason, no one can tell you ahead of time that your use is definitely a FAIR USE.
  • In determining if a use is fair, four factors must be considered: purpose of the use; nature of the work being used; amount of the work being used; whether the proposed use would economically harm the copyright owner (see next tab for further details)
  • Each member of the Aggie community is responsible for making his or her own Fair Use determination. Some online tools are available to help users work through the Four Factors, including the Fair Use Checklist and the Fair Use Evaluator.

Getting Permission

Getting Permission to Use A Copyrighted Work

Once you determine the need for permission, don't be afraid to ask!

The key to getting permission is being organized and following the necessary steps:

1. Get the complete citation for the work(s) you want to use.

You will need all of this information in order to determine who is the appropriate person to grant permission.

2. identify the rights owner.

This may take some research and persistence. It may be the publisher of a book or other literary work; the movie producer of a film; the recording studio of a musical work; or the heir of a deceased copyright owner. Many large rights owners, such as publishers and movie studios, post their rights clearance process on their websites.  You may also be able to identifyrights owners by searching the records of the U.S. Copyright Office or the database of the Copyright Clearance Center.

In the case of multiple owners, authors or creators you only need to secure the permission from one of the copyright holders.

3. Prepare a letter requesting permission. 

There are no hard and fast rules for requesting permission, but it is generally a good idea to include the following informatin in your request:

  • A description of the work in which you hope to incorporate the copyrighted material (student report, doctoral dissertation, class presentation, etc.) and the date of its publication, creation or presentation.
  • The citation of the work you wish to use and relevant pages, portion or section.
  • A description of the rights you are requesting (how many copies you are making, or how big the audience size is, plus what formats you will use to represent the copyrighted  work).  Examples of sample permission letters are available from the resources listed in the right sidebar.
  • A place for the copyright owner to sign the letter indicating their willingness to grant your request for permission.

4. Be sure to secure the permission in writing

A printed letter or an email is okay. 

5. Do not interpret the lack of a response to your request as a grant of permission.

If you are not successful in securing permission on your own, you may wish to consult one of the copyright licensing services, such as Copyright Clearance Center, for assistance.  These services may be fee-based and you may be expected to pay to license the work for your purpose.

Celebrating 75 Years of Excellence!

Westchester Community College provides accessible, high quality and affordable education to meet the needs of our diverse community. We are committed to student success, academic excellence, workforce development, economic development and lifelong learning.

Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook

75 Grasslands Road
Valhalla, NY 10595
Tel: (914) 606-6600