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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Copyright Reference Guide: Home

The Fine Print

Copyright law is complicated. This guide is intended to provide you with some guidance on how to refer library users to accurate information. However, this guide is not intended to provide legal advice to you or library users nor should you attempt to provide legal advice to library users.

And, of course, when in doubt, please refer library users to the Copyright Librarian, Sara Benson, at

Some Copyright Ground Rules

  • A work created today (or, more specifically, after 1989) is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created and is (generally) protected for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years (could be even longer for some works).
  • There is no special symbol (such as the copyright symbol) necessary on the protected work since 1989--it is protected simply because someone created it and wrote it down or recorded it.
  • If more than one person created a work, they might be joint owners of a work (see "Copyright Ownership" on the right).
  • When copyright expires, the work becomes public domain.
  • Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the tangible expression in a fixed medium of the idea can.  
  • Facts can't be copyrighted, either.
  • You may use any copyrighted material under the fair use doctrine, within fair use guidelines.
  • If something looks copyrighted, assume it is.
  • Copyright protects an author's right to reproduce (copy), distribute (license), make derivatives of the work, publicly display and perform the work
  • This means that if you wish to make a copy of a copyrighted work (unless it is considered a "fair use") you must get permission from the owner of the work
  • You also generally cannot publicly display a copyrighted work (say a movie or work of art) unless you have permission to do so or a recognized "copyright exception" exists

Common Misperceptions

Here are a few common misperceptions (and corrections) about copyright law basic principles.

1. The internet is fair game.

False.  Copyright laws still apply.

2.  No © = no copyright.


3.  Use in teaching = fair use.

False.  Fair use requires a case-by-case and individualized determination of each source used.  

Copyright Ownership

If you wrote an essay or article, you are the owner of that article unless and until you contract away your rights (such as in a publishing agreement).

Giving away the bundle of rights that constitute copyright is often called a grant. If the transfer is exclusive it has to be in writing. In books/articles, this usually occurs in a publishing agreement.

The Creative Commons has developed a series of licenses that allows copyright holders to retain control over their works, but still make them available under terms more favorable than copyright allows.  Essentially, under the creative commons licenses, owners of copyright have allowed others to use their work with certain limitations specified in the creative commons license.

More information about the creative commons license is available on their website at

 A work is considered joint if it meets these conditions:

  • both or all the authors intend that their contributions be merged into a single work;

  • this intention exists at the time of creation of the work.

No written contract is necessary to create a joint work. Each author owns an undivided portion of the entire work.  So, one author can grant another person permission to use the work without the agreement of the author author.  The only obligation is to share in any profits received. 

For some additional information about copyright in the music industry, please see the LibGuide on Copyright Resources for Music.

Common Questions & Answers

Q: Should I put some sort of copyright notice on my work?

A: It is wise to do so because even though it is not required, many people misunderstand basic copyright law rules. So, putting a notice on your work will remind others not to use it unless they have an exception applies to general copyright rules or they have obtained your permission first.  


Q: As long as something is for educational use, I'm not violating copyright laws, right?

A: Unfortunately, no. Although there is a limited exception for face-to-face teaching, not all educational uses of copyrighted works will fall under that exception and fair use is decided on a case-by-case (not a blanket exception) basis.


Q: How do I know FOR SURE that something is a fair use?

A: That's a tough one. Unfortunately, it is hard to know when something is a fair use for sure because, ultimately, the court decides fair use cases on a case-by-case basis. Generally, we should exercise our good faith judgment and consider risk assessment when making fair use determinations.  But, this does not mean that we shouldn't exercise our fair use rights.  We should do so in a considered way.


Q: What role does licensing play in specific copyright questions?

A: A very large role. Essentially, you can contract away (through licensing) any of your copyright rights. So, for instance, if I write a journal article but if I assign my copyright entirely to the journal publisher, then I no longer have any right to share my article either publicly or privately without the permission of the journal.


Scholarly Communication and Publishing

The Basics of Copyright


The content for this page originated with the School of Music's Copyright LibGuide.  


Creative Commons License

Except where otherwise indicated, original content in this guide is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 license. You are free to share, adopt, or adapt the materials. We encourage broad adoption of these materials for teaching and other professional development purposes, and invite you to customize them for your own needs.