Copyrights: Protecting Creators and Their Creative Expressions

Doe Memorial Library

Photo credit: Keegan Houser

Copyrights protect creative works by ensuring that only creators have the rights to reproduce, distribute, display, perform and alter these works. Creative works include writing, drawing, artistic works, computer code and computer software, among other things. Creators retain the rights to reproduce, distribute, display, perform and alter their work.  

If the creator of a work is an individual, the copyright protects distribution of the work for 70 years after the creator’s death. If the creator of a work is an organization such as a university or journal, copyright protections last for 95 to 120 years. 

A copyright protects the expression, presentation or arrangement of a creator’s ideas, but not the ideas themselves. Consider that many people could have the same idea, but they might express those ideas in vastly different ways. Those methods of expression are protected, but the shared idea is not.  

Copyrights are immediately bestowed upon a creator as soon as the work is placed in some tangible, transmissible form (such as in a book or online). However, to gain the support of the United States government in protecting these works, a creator must register for a copyright with the U.S. Library of Congress.  

Copyright infringement occurs when a work is reproduced, distributed, displayed, performed or altered without the creator’s permission. If a work is registered with the Library of Congress, the creator will have clear legal grounds for redress. If not, it can be more difficult to prosecute those who infringe on a copyright.

Single Authorship, Joint Authorship and Collective Work

When an individual creates a work, this is called single authorship; this single author alone is granted a copyright. Joint authorship occurs when two or more people work together on a creative work. In this case, all creators have equal rights to distribute and alter the work, and they must split profits among each other.  

When a person creates something for the purpose of a larger group and that group holds the copyright, this is called collective work. Collective works often arise in employment settings where part of the job description includes writing or other creative work. In the copyright world, a creative task done as part of an employee’s job description is called a work for hire. For example, a scientist at a medical company might write the instruction manual for a new medical device. Several staff members at a university might prepare information for that school’s website. In both cases, the employers – the medical company and the university – own the copyrights. The scientist and the staff members who write these works do not.

Copyright and the Academic Tradition

By tradition, copyright for a professor’s or student’s scholarly work remains with the author, not with the university they are associated with. Professors and graduate student instructors also have copyright of any course materials they create for classes they teach.

Copyright Assignment and Licensing

The creator of a work is the original owner of a copyright. However, copyright ownership can be transferred to others through a process called assignment. This happens often when a professor or graduate student hopes to publish in a journal. Generally, journals require that authors relinquish their copyrights so that the journals themselves control the distribution of the material. Note that this means that the author of the work cannot revise it without permission from the new copyright owner. 

Copyright owners might allow others to use their protected works in limited capacities. This is called licensing. For example, a graduate student might allow a journal to publish her work for a certain time or in a certain publication, but a license ensures that the work remains, ultimately, in the hands of its author.

What’s the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement?  

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work as your own or using someone else’s work without giving that person proper credit via citations and other references. Copyright infringement is the distribution of work that is not your own without the permission of the copyright owner. For example, if you photocopy a textbook and give it to your friends to save them some money, this is a copyright violation. 

Book in UC Berkeley library

Photo credit: Keegan Houser

Exceptions to Copyright Law

Two exceptions to copyright law allow the use of copyrighted works without the explicit permission of the copyright owner. These exceptions relate to educational, informative and critical purposes. Note that proper citation of these works is still required in these situations.  

Fair Use

Federal copyright regulations do allow us to use copyrighted material for some purposes called fair use. Using copyrighted material for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Four factors determine whether a situation can be considered fair use. These are the extent to which…

  • The situation is educational or informative versus commercial.

  • The work lends itself to public comment or criticism. (For example, a work of non-fiction generally lends itself to more fair use purposes than a piece of music.)

  • The work is used as a whole or in part.  

  • The commercial success of a work is diminished by the use. 

Other Educational Purposes

Copyright code also states that “performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” is not a copyright violation. This means that a professor may show a movie clip, play a piece of music or display pages of a book for students in the course of teaching. Students in a theater course may work in class on the performance of a play. A further rule called the TEACH Act extends some of these rights to online classes as well.

Open Access: Keep Your Copyright and Share Your Work with Others

Over the last 20 years, there has been a movement among scholars around the world to allow greater access to scholarly and creative work. The idea that information should be widely accessible is called open access

Consider this. In general, if a graduate student wants his work published in a journal, he must assign, or transfer, the copyright to that publisher. The publisher then charges hefty subscription fees to universities, research institutions and other organizations. If these groups don’t subscribe, they can’t access the journal’s contents.  

While journals certainly need funds to run their companies, this subscription model raises several concerns. First, much research around the world is funded by governments — that is, by the public.  It’s unfair, then, that the general public cannot access this research without paying for it. Second, this bar to access also limits the progress of knowledge, discovery and innovation. It’s a principle of democratic society that knowledge is meant to be shared and improved upon. High fees mean that only the wealthiest institutions can afford subscriptions. This publishing model, then, creates inequities in our education system.  

Open access is an attempt to give more people access to intellectual and creative work.  

How does the open access model of publishing work?  

Open access has two main benefits: It allows creators to maintain copyright of their work and allows free access to others so that they may view that work and use it for their own educational and research purposes.  

While open access is a philosophy about information sharing, groups such as Creative Commons are the tools scholars and creatives use to share their works. Creative Commons is a website that helps creators license their works to the general public. As with any license, the copyright owner can restrict use of the work. For example, an artist might restrict the reproduction or display of her works to educational settings only. Scholars can also use Creative Commons as a search tool to find open access information.  

The University of California also has its own open access system called eScholarship. Here, UC scholars can license and publish their work, and others can search for works as well.  

Many journals are also exploring open access models. Recently, they have moved from charging subscription fees to charging authors or their institutions to publish. Your department and the UC Berkeley library can assist you in this.  

Remember that open access allows access to scholarly work; it does not remove copyright protection from it. If you use an item you found through an open access forum, you must cite it properly in your own work.   

Open Access and Computer Code

Computer code is considered a form of creative expression; therefore, it’s protected by copyright law.  By tradition and by the nature of computer programs, it has been common for one computer programmer to inspect, manipulate and build upon the code of another.  Given this, many licensing groups exist to support programmers who wish to make their code public. Two well-known groups include GNU License and MIT License. Programming licenses are generally more flexible and nuanced than licenses for other creative works. Coders who want to allow open access to their work have the option of allowing their code to be viewed and used with or without manipulation. As with all copyrighted work, users must give proper credit to creators if they use that work.