Skip to Main Content

Creative Commons: Copyright Q&A


Copyright law is a set of regulations that restricts how people can access and use original, creative works. U.S. copyright laws are rooted in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, which gives Congress the ability to "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." Title 17 of the the US Code lays out the current rules and regulations of current U.S. copyright law. 

Disclaimer: This page will answer some basic questions about U.S. copyright law. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. 

What is the Purpose of Copyright?

Copyright law grants (for a limited time) exclusive rights to authors and artists over their original, creative works. In most countries these rights last many years past the creator's death.

Reasoning behind copyright law generally falls in one of two main camps. From a Utilitarian rationale, copyright gives incentive to create by attaching social and commercial value to creative works. This rationale is most closely aligned with U.S. attitude toward copyright.

There is also the Author's Rights rationale which highlights the strong connection creators have to their works. The concept of Author's rights is rooted in moral rights. 


How Does One Obtain a Copyright?

One does not have to register a work with a copyright office to obtain a copyright. For the most part, copyright is granted the moment a work is created. Some countries, including the United States, require the work be "fixed," which means it is in a tangible medium. Registering with a copyright office does have some benefits, such as officially recording your authorship of a work. 

It is important to pay attention to who holds the copyright for a work. Usually, this would be the author, but in some cases could be an employer or organization. As well, international treaties have allowed for a certain level of agreement surrounding copyright law and practice. However, countries do have variations that need to be recognized. As a general rule, follow the copyright law in the country in which a particular is being used. 

What is the Public Domain?

Creative works that are in the Public Domain are not protected by copyright. They can be accessed and used without permission from the creator. Some ways a work enters the public domain are: the copyright associated with it expires, it was not eligible for copyright, or the author gives permission for it to be in the public domain. Works in the Public Domain contribute to cultural growth by aiding and inspiring thought, discussion, and creativity.

Some places to find works in the Public Domain: Project Gutenburg, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian.


American Library Association. (2022). Copyright for librarians.

Creative Commons. (n.d.). Creative commons certificate for educators, academic librarians and GLAM.

Oregon State University. (2022, March 2). Copyright and Fair Use.

U.S. Congress. (n.d.). Constitution of the United States. Constitution Annotated.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

Materials can be protected under copyright law if they are original and are expressions of ideas and facts (not the ideas and facts themselves).

For Example:

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Visual Art
  • Dramatic works
  • Translations and adaptations
  • Databases Software
  • Audiovisual materials

How Can Intellectual Property Be Protected?

Copyright law is one way to protect intellectual property (IP) by giving time-limited exclusive rights to the author of a creative work. There are other types of intellectual property that utilize other types of laws for protection:

Trademark law: Businesses and organizations that produce goods or services will often establish a trademark to communicate the brand to consumers. Trademark protection allows these businesses and organizations exclusive use of their trademark to prevent confusion about the source of the goods or services. 

Patent law: Patents are usually given to original inventions and, for a limited time, give inventors exclusive rights on the production, sales, and import of their invention. 

Other types of IP law address design patents, geographical indications, & trade secrets. 

Are there exceptions or limitations to copyright?

Yes. U.S. copyright law is not absolute and has limitations and exceptions to ensure it does not impede the rights of the public, including first amendment rights (i.e. for purposes of criticism and parody) and rights of the differently-abled (i.e. formatting a work for people with visual impairment). Here are some examples:

Fair Use: Fair use doctrine makes copyright regulations more flexible to allow some access and use possible without special permissions. If there is a challenge, courts can decide if a situation falls under fair use by looking at four factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the work
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market

TEACH Act: Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act is a 2002 revision of Section 110(2) of the U.S. Copyright Act. As distance education increased, the copyright law needed to reflect the changing nature of accessing copyrighted materials in a digital educational environment. 

CC License

"Creative Commons: Copyright Q & A" by Danielle Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.