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Copyright and Licensing for Digital Projects

This guide supports scholars who want to learn about applying Creative Commons licenses to their creative digital works. It is also a resource to find Creative Commons licensed digital media and support for making fair use judgments.

About Copyright

Copyright Law describes a collection of exclusive rights for creators (authors, artists, inventors, etc.) of original works. U.S. copyright law is referred to in the Constitution, where Congress is given the power "to promote progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries," (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8).

Though it has been revised and updated several times, most recently in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the core rights given to creators have essentially remained the same:

  • To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies
  • To prepare derivative works, such as translations, dramatizations, arrangements, versions, etc.
  • To distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, such as licenses, contracts, etc.
  • To perform the copyrighted work in public
  • To display the copyrighted work in public

All original, creative works fixed in a tangible medium of expression may be protected by copyright. Copyright protection does not require publication or registration of the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. It is applied at the moment a creative work appears in fixed form. Nor are works created after 1978 required to display a © symbol.

However, registration with the Copyright Office has some advantages:

  • It establishes a public record of the copyright claim
  • In order to sue for infringement, a copyright claim must be registered
  • Registration may be completed at any time during the life of the copyright, but registration within three months of the date of creation entitles the owner of the copyright to statutory damages and lawyers fees

There are a number of areas that are not addressed by copyright law:

  • Logos and slogans (protected by Trademark law)
  • Methods, processes and systems (protected by Patent law)
  • Proprietary recipes or formulas (protected by Trade Secret law)
  • U.S. Government information (in the public domain in the U.S.)
  • Factual information or raw data (uncopyrightable)