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Copyright Guide

This guide helps CSCU faculty and staff understand copyright law and apply this understanding to exercise their rights to make academic use of materials.

Who Owns the Copyright?

It can be challenging to figure out who owns a copyright.  Because copyright is automatic, requires no notice, and can be sold, given away, or otherwise licensed, the material that we are looking at may not have a notice of copyright or that notice may no longer be accurate (e.g., when a publisher is acquired by another publisher or when rights revert back to the original author per a contract).

When the owner is a person

Try to find contact information by searching for them online. Though your initial conversations might be over the phone or on Facebook, Twitter, email, remember that you will want a signed letter of permission (see templates from Columbia University) to really feel confident legally speaking. Remember that people often do not own the copyright on their work, but it is instead owned by a publisher or other content producer.

When the owner is a company

Look on their website for a permission or copyright department. If you cannot find one, you will need to send a permission letter off to their main address.

If/When you do not hear back

If you cannot get permission and your use is not fair or covered by another exception, you should not use that material.  

Getting Permission

If you have determined that your use is not covered by any exceptions (Classroom Use, Fair Use, TEACH Act) and that the work is not in the public domain, you will need to ask the copyright holder for permission.

Depending on the rights you need and the work you are seeking permission to use, one of the copyright clearinghouse services may be of help, such as:

  • The Copyright Clearance Center (for journal articles and books from major publishers)
  • For films, there are a number of potential providers, usually based on the production house (see here for more details)
  • For music, you should check for rights-providing organizations (see here for more details)

 You may need to contact the copyright holder directly to ask for permission. When doing so:

  • Be as detailed as possible about how you plan to use the work and be sure to specifically explain your purpose and character of the use as determined through your Four Factor analysis.  Include things like the number of students in your class, how long you plan to use it, and what portions of the work you want to use.
  • Know that in many cases you will be quoted a fee for using the work. You can attempt to negotiate this fee.
  • Though it is not always so, be prepared for a lengthy process. Just tracking down the owner can take a long time and response times can vary.
  • Remember that the creator is often not the copyright holder.
  • If you are denied permission or quoted a fee that is unaffordable, remember that being denied doesn't have any impact on fair use.  Some people ask for permission as a matter of course and only go to do a fair use analysis if they are unable to get permission.  

Seeking permission is necessary in instances where your use is not permitted by any other part of the copyright law.  Remember that not all educational uses are fair uses and that attribution is not a substitute for permission.

When there's no one to ask: Orphan Works

One of the most vexing problems in copyright law is the problem of "orphan works.” An orphan work is a copyright-protected work where it is difficult or impossible to determine who owns the copyright. The copyright term in the U.S. is long and copyrights outlive their creators by 70 years.  Works by corporate or anonymous authors are covered by copyright for up to 120 years. That is a lot of time for the details of ownership to get lost in the shuffle.

When dealing with an "orphan work," you must basically decide to either take the risk that a copyright holder might later identify themselves or forgo using the work. It is hard to say how risky a given use might be. If a copyright holder came forward, they might simply insist that you stop using the work or they may attempt to recover damages. If you are using the material on a public-facing website, providing a takedown notice can show good faith in your use of such material. Be prepared to take action as needed, keeping in mind that not all claims of copyright infringement are legitimate.

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