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Frequently asked questions

If I find it on the web, it’s free to use, right?

How can I tell if copyright has been renewed?

What about a work that has been published outside of the United States?

Is it fair use to post copyrighted materials on my course web page?

Are there exceptions for people with disabilities?


If I find it on the web, it’s free to use, right?

No. All of the copyright concepts apply to electronic and printed materials. In fact, publishers and copyright owners are more concerned about resources on the web because the audience is so vast and it is so easy to copy and distribute such materials. Remember that it is not necessary to post a copyright notice for the author to have these rights, even on the web.

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How can I tell if copyright has been renewed?

Copyright renewals only concern those works that were first published in the U.S. during the years 1923-1963. Works published during this period had to get their copyrights renewed at the U.S. Copyright Office in their 28th year in order to stay copyrighted. There is no need to research renewals for works published prior to 1923 as these are in the public domain, or after 1963 as these received an automatic 95-year copyright term. Works that were first published elsewhere before 1977, like in the United Kingdom, often have a 95 year copyright term even if they did not comply with U.S. requirements for things like renewal because of agreements the U.S. later made with other countries.

Finding out whether a particular work was renewed usually requires a search of records in the U.S. Copyright Office. For more information on this process, see U.S. Copyright Office:  Circular 15: Renewal of Copyright. For works registered or renewed since 1978, search the U.S. Copyright Office online search site. Alternatively, for a fee, a researcher can arrange for the U.S. Copyright Office to conduct a search of the copyright records. For more information about the U.S. Copyright Office search service, see U.S. Copyright Office: Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work. Additional options include writing a letter directly to the author or publisher verifying that there was no renewal, or purchasing search services from a commercial agency.  

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What about a work that has been published outside of the United States?

Copyright law is territorial. Reproduction and other uses in the United States are governed by U.S. law and agreements between the U.S. and other countries. Copyright protection in other countries depends on the laws of the particular country. Most countries offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions that have been greatly simplified by international copyright treaties and conventions.

There are two principal international copyright conventions, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne Convention) and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). See more here: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl100.html.

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Is it fair use to post copyrighted materials on my course web page?

It depends. You should look at the four factors of fair use to determine how your particular situation fares when examined using the fair use criteria. See the fair use guidance on this site for more information. In general, if access to your course web page is restricted, e.g., by use of a course management system or password, then it is more likely to be a fair use. If access is not limited, then you need to take care with the amount of material that you are copying and displaying publicly. One of the four factors of fair use is whether the copying is for commercial or nonprofit, educational purposes and another is the effect on the copyright owner’s market. Limiting the “purpose and character” to educational purposes, and limiting access to enrolled students, makes the copying activity more likely to be considered a fair use.

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Are there exceptions for people with disabilities?

It is generally permissible to reproduce or distribute copies of certain copyrighted works, such as instructional materials, if such copies are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats for use by individuals with disabilities. Examples include providing a digital or Braille copy of a textual work to enable use by students with print disabilities, or providing a captioned version of a video when such version is not commercially available so that the video may be used by a deaf or hard of hearing student. For more information about services and resources to accommodate disabilities, contact the office for disability resources on your campus.

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