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This guide contains information (but not legal advice) about aspects of copyright most commonly encountered by the students, faculty, or staff of institutions of higher education.

Who owns the copyright?

Academy Awards 2014: Ellen DeGeneres and company.

  • The above is the most retweeted photo in history. Do all the retweets constitute copyright violations? (Olivia Olivares took this from Ellen DeGeneres's Twitter feed. She may have committed a copyright violation!)
  • Ellen organized the photo, but Bradley Cooper took the photo. Is the copyright his or Ellen's?
  • The camera/smartphone with which the photo was taken was supplied by Samsung as a promotional deal with the Academy Awards. Does Samsung have a copyright interest in this photo?

Celebes crested macaque selfie, 2011

  • The owner of the camera, David Slater, set the camera up in the rainforest and befriended a troop of macaques
  • A macaque took the selfie
  • Wikimedia Commons made the photo available online because they claimed that the macaque, as a non-human, was not entitled to copyright protection (Olivia Olivares took the photo from Wikimedia Commons)
  • Slater says he's lost a lot of money because his copyright was infringed
  • PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sued on behalf of the macaque's copyright and were laughed out of court

Copyright Defined

The founders of the United States of America felt that copyright was important enough to enshrine in the Constitution:

The Congress shall have the power . . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

What is sometimes overlooked about copyright law is that it serves a dual purpose. One purpose is to incentivize creators ("Authors and Inventors") by allowing them to profit from their work; however, a second purpose of copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" by allowing subsequent creators to make use of previous work. That is why copyright—monopoly status for a work—is bestowed for “limited Times” rather than permanently. For example, if the Disney Corporation was not allowed to profit from its creative work, there would be no incentive for its studios to create films; however, if copyrights were perpetual, Walt Disney very likely would not have been able to transform his small animation studio into an entertainment powerhouse by creating feature-length films based on prior works, such as Snow White and Cinderella, that had become part of the public domain.

What is Copyright Infringement?

When someone uses a copyrighted work without permission, this is known as infringement. While infringement is a violation of the law, in all but the most extreme cases infringement is a violation of civil law, rather than criminal. In other words, someone who infringes on copyright is far more likely to be sued by the copyright holder -- the person(s) or organization that owns the copyright of a work -- than to be arrested by law enforcement.

Fair use is a part of copyright law that allows, in certain cases, the legal (non-infringing) use of copyrighted works without the need to obtain permission from the copyright holder.

See the Legal Notices section of this guide for more information.