Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of copyright, such as what makes a work copyrightable, the elements of copyright ownership, and the duration of copyright for an item. If you are interested in conducting copyright research or how to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, take a look at the resources on the Registration & Research section below. Find out about using a Creative Commons license as an intermediate copyright option between “All Rights Reserved” and public domain works.

Copyright Basics | Registration & Research | Policies & Laws

Copyright Basics

A copyrighted work is defined as an expression of creativity that shows originality, although it doesn’t have to be unique, and is fixed in some medium so others may experience it. That is, if one can listen to, watch or read it, then the work meets the fixation element. Consult the Copyright Genie to determine if a work you are questioning is copyrightable.

What works are copyrightable? Just about everything.

  • Literary works
  • Musical scores & accompanying lyrics
  • Plays & accompanying music
  • Pantomimes & choreography
  • Pictorial, graphic & sculptural works
  • Motion pictures & other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

What isn’t protected by copyright?

  • Ideas, principles, or methods of operation
  • Basic facts
  • Titles, names, short phrases, or slogans (although the latter may be registered as a trademark)
  • Works that are in the public domain

Copyright protection starts the moment a work is fixed, but how long does it last?

Copyright duration can be quite complex and depends on when a work was created and the country in which it was registered. For a graphic overview of term limits for works registered in the United States, see Peter Suber’s excellent Copyright Term and the Public Domain table. The Public Domain Slider will also give you an idea as to whether a work you want to use may be in the public domain.

Here are a few choice online resources describing copyright basics:

Copyright and Libraries

Use the Section 108 Spinner for initial guidance regarding reproductions made by libraries and archives for their users, as replacement or preservation copies. Section 108 continues to be a hotly contested part of Copyright Law between producers and consumers of copyrighted material because educational use could not be agreed upon in the areas of distance learning, interlibrary loan, and electronic reserves. See US Copyright Office Circular 21 Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) provides information on several copyright and intellectual property issues and cases as they pertain to academic libraries, as well as additional resources. ARL also maintains Know Your Copy Rights, a site dedicated to using copyrighted works in academic settings.

The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) includes representatives from the American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries. Content specifically addresses those groups’ needs and interests.

Registration & Research

Copyright protection is often misunderstood. A creator does not need to file or register his/her work with the US Copyright Office in order to secure rights for that work. A work is copyrighted automatically when it is “fixed” for the first time by the creator. (Remember, copyright protection can only be granted to works that have been fixed in some medium.) The duration of that protection for all works created on or after January 1, 1978, is the life of the author plus 70 years. For works with multiple authors, the term is 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.

Although registration is not a condition of copyright protection, there are several benefits; it is a legal formality that produces a public record of the copyright claim. Additionally, registration is required to seek statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit that is filed in court for works originating in the United States. Registration may be made at any time within the original term of the copyright (the life of the author plus 70 years.)

To register a copyright, a creator must file a claim with the US Copyright Office. The application consists of three parts: a completed application form, a filing fee, and a nonreturnable “deposit.” The deposit is a copy of the work submitted to the Copyright Office.

US Copyright Office Circular 1: Copyright Basics (PDF)
US Copyright Office: Registering a Work
University Policy 4002: Copyright In University Works

Copyright Research

For specific information about the copyright status of an older work, there are currently two online databases available, as well as the Copyright Card Catalog in the Library of Congress, in which research may be necessary. Where you begin your research depends on the date of your item. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 22 How To Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work for copyright research guidance.

Briefly, the card catalog contains copyright records spanning registration of works dating from 1790 through 1977. The online catalog is available for works registered or renewed from January 1, 1978, to present. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 23 The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office for specific information regarding content in each. Copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for Class A books published in the US between 1923 and 1963 may be accessed using Stanford University’s Copyright Renewal Database.

The U.S. Copyright Office has begun scanning pre-1978 registration records to make them electronically accessible to researchers. The Office has proposed to create a virtual card catalog that would serve as an interim step to the long-term effort of capturing index terms from the scanned card images using OCR and keyboarding, with the ultimate goal of  building indexes for online searching. The Copyright Matters blog provides weekly updates about this enormous project.

Policies & Laws

Mason’s copyright policies address ownership of content created by faculty, staff, and students affiliated with the University. These policies provide basic guidance to the University community about use of third party content in materials created for instruction, directed works and student assignments, as well as materials provided via library services (e.g., ILL and e-reserves).

Although plagiarism is not a copyright issue, per se, academic integrity is an integral part of copyright. For this reason, the University’s statement on academic integrity is included here, as is the Student Honor Code. Ethics in work practice, instructional assignments, and use of state-owned (i.e., Mason) equipment are fundamental to the policies and laws associated with copyright.

Links to applicable federal and Virginia state copyright laws are provided as well, for your perusal.

University Policies | Academic Integrity | U.S. Copyright Act | Virginia State Law

University Policies

University Policy Number 1104 — Use and Reproduction of Copyrighted Materials
This policy provides guidelines and procedures for the use and reproduction by university employees and students of copyrighted works in electronic courseware, websites, print coursepacks, and electronic, print, and media reserves. That is, materials in which the university does not hold copyright

University Policy Number 1301 — Responsible Use of Computing
This policy explicitly stipulates acceptable and forbidden use of the George Mason University network and computer hardware. The DMCA infringement notification (aka Stop It) process is described in detail, as well.

University Policy Number 4002 — Copyright in University Works
This policy details the ownership of copyright in works created by George Mason University faculty, staff, and students.

University Policy Number 4003 — Patenting University Inventions
This policy addresses the ownership of, benefit from, and other matters relating to inventions made at the university.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is at the core of George Mason University culture. As members of the Mason community, students, faculty, and staff pledge not to “cheat, steal, plagiarize, or lie in matters related to . . . academic work.” We should be and are held to a high standard of honesty and accountability in our research, assignments, and publications.

The fundamental principle of integrity resonates throughout all aspects of university life. Because the university functions as our Internet Service Provider (ISP), we are bound to comply with state and federal laws governing this resource, as well as with the rules defined in the student Honor Code, Responsible Use of Computing, and other policies. Plagiarism is a serious Honor Code offense, and individuals who engage in this behavior may be subject to investigation and review by the university’s Honor Committee. On the other hand, copyright violations, such as unauthorized sharing of music and other proprietary material, that stem from improper use of the Mason network and equipment flout state and federal laws governing the use, replication, and distribution of copyrighted content.

U.S. Copyright Act

Content owners and consumers benefit from a balance in copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code). From an owner’s perspective, the law theoretically protects the rights of an individual who has spent time and, possibly, money creating a work. That is, the creator has a right to receive compensation and attribution for that work, as well as a level of control over its use. From a consumer’s perspective, the law may permit a work to be copied and enjoyed or expanded on, without the permission of the content, or copyright, owner. The decision to use a work without asking for permission is based on a subjective interpretation of the four factors comprising “fair use”, the doctrine on which users may rely as a defense against a content owner’s claim of copyright infringement.

As U.S. copyright law has evolved, several trends have emerged. In short, copyright duration for works owned by individuals has extended from 14 years, back in 1909, to the current time frame of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. This extension has inhibited the rollover of works into the public domain. Disagreements over the legal status of “orphan” or unclaimed works also precludes free use of these works by the public.  Easier access to and distribution of content via the Internet has revolutionized learning, teaching, buying, and selling. Consequently, commodification of information made available electronically has resulted in greater pressure by copyright owners to control and be compensated for their content. These broad and dynamic changes undoubtedly affect how the law is interpreted by both the public and the courts. Without the balance offered by the fair use doctrine, the financial and logistical impact of copyright on society would be overwhelmingly burdensome.

Read the entire law here Title 17 or read specific sections of the law, as denoted by the file tabs “Fair Use”, “TEACH Act”. “Digital Millenium Copyright Act”, etc.

Virginia State Law

Chapter 28 of Title 2.2, section 2822.  Ownership and use of patents and copyrights developed by certain public employees; Creative Commons copyrights.

Sub-section D states “this section shall not apply to employees of public institutions of higher education who shall be subject to the patent and copyright policies of the institution employing them.”

Chapter 38 of Title 59.1.   Virginia Music Licensing Fees Act

The Commonwealth law governing royalty contracts between a proprietor and a performing rights society, on behalf of a copyright owner, licensing public performance of nondramatic musical or other similar works.

Chapter 763 of Title 59.1 An Act to amend and reenact §§ 59.1-501.2 through 59.1-501.5, 59.1-501.9, 59.1-501.10, 59.1-501.12, 59.1-502.9, 59.1-502.12, 59.1-505.3, 59.1-506.5, and 59.1-508.16 of the Code of Virginia and to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 59.1-503.10, relating to the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act. [H 2412] Approved March 26, 2001