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This guide is not intended to be legal advice. It is designed to provide general information about copyright to consider while researching and teaching in higher education.

Cline librarians can help you to understand copyright issues as they pertain to your own research and publications, including: 

  • Strategies for retaining copyright to your own works using SPARCaddendum rather than signing over those rights to a publisher
  • Understanding the Creative Commons licensing option.

If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney.

What is Copyright

Copyright is a set of laws designed to protect original works of authorship in a tangible form of expression. These laws offer copyright owners’ protection over how their work is reused. The copyright owner retains the sole right to:

  • Reproduce the work;
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • Distribute copies of the work;
  • Display the work;
  • Perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, motion pictures or other audiovisual work. In the case of sound recordings, the owner maintains the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.)

From Copyright Basics, Circular 1, U.S. Copyright Office, available online at

What works are subject to copyright?

  • Almost all works are copyrighted the moment they are created. Examples include articles, songs, pictures, webpages, and even hand-written documents – essential anything original and in a fixed, tangible format 
  • While facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, the expression of facts or ideas can be copyrighted
  • Copyright protects works regardless of if they are electronic or physical, published or unpublished
  • Since 1989, a work is no longer required by law to contain a copyright notice in order to receive copyright protection

Who owns the copyright of a work?

  • When works are published, the publisher often owns the copyright.
  • If you authored an article, check the contract you signed at publication to determine who owns the copyright. For more information about retaining authors’ rights, see the For Researchers page of this guide.
  • Generally if a work is not published, then the copyright belongs to the author
  • However, if the work was created as a "work made for hire," then the copyright can belong to the author's employer. At NAU, faculty may own the copyrights to their non-published works, while staff work is considered "work made for hire."


Public Domain

What's the public domain?

The public domain refers to those works that are not copyright protected and that can be used freely, without seeking permission. There are a number of ways a work may pass into the public domain, including the following, though you should always check carefully to determine that a particular work really is in the public domain before assuming that you may use it.

  • United States Government Documents (note that foreign documents may be copyrighted)
  • Materials that have used a Creative Commons license instead of copyright, which gives you permission to share and use materials
  • When copyrights expire the materials move into the public domain 
  • Factual and non-creative works like telephone books, standard tables of chemical information, etc.

Additional Resources:

Fair Use

The Fair Use doctrine is often evoked whenever someone wants to use a copyright-protected work in an educational setting without the formal permission of the copyright owner. However, determining fair use is not so cut-and-dry: Section 107 of the copyright law lays out four factors that must be weighed in determining whether a situation can be classified as fair use:

Four Factors


1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes. Non-profit educational use is the easiest to be covered under fair use; most universities and non-profit educational institutions can easily claim fair use for this reason.
2. The nature of the copyrighted work. Factual or scientific materials tend to fit under fair use better than creative works such as fiction, poetry, plays, etc. The materials used in the health sciences environment tend to be more factual or scientific in nature.
3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. How much of a work are you using? Are you using an entire journal issue, a large portion of the book, most of the illustrations from an article or book? The greater the amount used, the less likely it is to be fair use.
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. Can you easily purchase the copies that you need? Is this a consumable item such as a study guide that should not be reproduced? Are you repeatedly using something under fair use when you should be paying royalties?

Any determination of Fair Use must take all FOUR factors into consideration.

How often a work is used is NOT part of the copyright law, though some publishers believe you should seek permission or pay a royalty fee for repeated use fo copyrighted works.  A safe practice is to seek permission for repeated use, especially if the use is over several years, though it is not stipulated by the copyright law.

Adapted from FL-102, June 1999, available online at

Additional Resources:

Other Exceptions to Copyright

Copyright Tutorials & Resources