FAQ: Copyright

Q. What is the duration of copyright protection?
A. At some point, all copyrighted works lose their protected status and return to the public domain, but copyright duration can be difficult to determine. Generally, if a work is created after January 1, 1978, it is protected for the life of the author plus seventy years. The duration of protection for works created before that date depends on several factors. The U.S. Copyright Office's World Wide Web site includes a helpful summary of the relevant factors.

Q. Can I copy software without obtaining permission?
A. Ordinarily, the authority to copy or distribute copyrighted software is limited by license - the contract that allows you to use the software. For example, some licenses limit permissible installations of the software to network servers. In that case, installing a copy of the software on your PC at home, even for the purpose of working at home, would violate the rights of the copyright owner. In addition, as with other copyrighted works, certain uses of software may qualify for treatment under the fair use exception.

Q. Is making a "course pack" for my students a fair use?
A. It depends on how you go about putting the course pack together. If you limit materials in the course pack to smaller portions of the original works (e.g., single chapters), include notice of the original copyright and author on copied material, and use copying facilities in the campus library rather than a for-profit copy shop, the course pack may be fair use. In addition, it may be relatively inexpensive and convenient to use resources such as the Copyright Clearance Center (http://www.copyright.com) to obtain permission to include book chapters and other materials in coursepacks.

Q. I found some materials on an Internet website that I want to use in class. Can I use it without permission?
A. Generally, no. Websites contain copyrighted information for which you need to obtain permission, just like works in any other medium. Fair use principles and the other exceptions to the permission requirement apply to on-line works, however, and may allow you to use the information.

Q. Some students will be watching a movie in a lounge in a campus residence hall. Is this legal?
A. Showing a videotape to a group of students in a common area of a residence hall could be a public performance which requires the authorization of the copyright owner, especially if the showing is advertised on bulletin boards or in hall newsletters as opposed to an impromptu gathering of students. Permission will almost certainly be required if students are charged admission for the performance. In contrast, a student inviting a small group of friends into his or her dorm room to watch a videotape or DVD would probably not be an infringement. Whether authorization of the copyright owner is required in cases like this is highly dependent on the size and composition of the audience.

Q. I found out that some of my students are selling notes of my lectures to a for-profit company that publishes them on the Internet. Is that legal?
A. The issue is complicated, but, as a general matter, if lectures are recorded, faculty members own the copyright in them and the institution would not become involved in protecting those rights. Students' notes may constitute derivative works of the recorded lecture and there are certain protective measures that instructors concerned about students selling notes on-line can take, such as informing students verbally or in writing of how their lecture notes may be used.