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Copyright and Fair Use: Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal protection granted to the creator of an original work. The United States Copyright Act protects original works from being used without permission from their authors. Under copyright law, authors have exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and profit from their work.

These protections and rights apply automatically, at the moment of the work's creation. The intellectual property policy of MCNY states that faculty hold copyright over work created while working for the college, including teaching, scholarly, and artistic materials. There are some examples to this rule, such as work created under grants for which the college needs to hold copyright. For more information, see the MCNY Faculty Handbook. 

Legal penalties for copyright infringement may include financial fees (from $200 to $150,000 for each individual act of infringement) and jail time.

How long does copyright protection last?

As of 1998, U.S. copyright extends to the lifetime of the author plus 70 years for works created in or after 1978.  Copyright protections for works created between 1924 and 1978 depend on when the works were published, registered, and renewed. As of 2020, copyright protection has expired for any work published in the U.S. on or before 1924.


Guide Purpose

The purpose of this guide is to assist faculty in making informed decisions about copyright and the use of copyrighted materials in online and blended courses.

It is not intended to replace the advice of legal counsel for specific copyright scenarios


What does copyright protect?

Copyright law protects expression that takes a tangible, fixed form.  Section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Act protects the following:

  • Literature
  • Dramatic works
  • Music and lyrics
  • Pantomime and dance (recorded or annotated)
  • Pictures, graphics, sculptures
  • Films
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural plans
  • Computer programs

Not protected by copyright are: facts, ideas, systems or methods of operation; however, copyright may protect the way these are expressed. Short phrases, slogans, and symbols are not covered by copyright either, but may be protected under trademark law. 

How do I avoid copyright infringement in teaching and research?

You can use work that is:

  • Available though the MCNY library
  • In the public domain
  • Licensed for non-commercial use through Creative Commons

You can:

  • Conduct a fair use assessment to determine if your use is protected under law
  • Obtain permissions from the copyright owner (which may include royalty payments and various terms and conditions).
  • Link to work already that is published online (rather than include it in your online course site); note: linking is not copying and when you link, you cannot be held liable for copyright infringement