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Fair Use and Creative Commons for Images

What is copyright?

Copyright law has its history in early 18th century England, but it was not enacted by settler colonialists in the United States until 1790. Most of the copyright law in the United States is primarily based on the Copyright Act of 1976. You can read the entirety of the Copyright Act here.

According to its writers, copyright law was developed in the United States in order to encourage the invention of new works. Copyright functions to give creators a monopoly on the works they've created--meaning that no one else can profit from their intellectual property.

What is copyrightable? (and other questions)

What makes a work eligible for copyright?

Not everything is copyrightable. For example, most fonts, layouts, or blank forms are considered the means of expression rather than an expression itself. An expression is copyrightable, then, when it meets the following criteria:

1. Originality: The level of creativity required to establish originality is generally low, but it does required the work to be the independent creation of the author.

2. Idea/Expression Distinction: Expressions are copyrightable, but not ideas. In some cases the ways to express an idea may be very limited, so those expressions are not protected by copyright (this is called the merger doctrine). Moreover, some elements of a work may be so conventional (such as a portrait in profile) that they are also not protected by copyright.

3. Fixed: Once a work has been executed and recorded in physical form, it's copyrightable. Improvised and/or unrecorded works can't be protected by copyright.


Once you've made sure that your work satisfies the requirements for copyrightabilty (see above) and has been "fixed in a tangible form" that is perceivable either directly or using a device, it's protected! Once that has happened, if you're working as an individual (not a corporate body), your copyright lasts your entire life, plus another 70 years.

If two or more people are the creators of a work, they all jointly hold copyright. That means that any profit a single rightsholder makes from the work must be shared equally, and that any licenses of the work must be granted by all of the rightsholders. To transfer the rights to just one of the rightsholders, they must all agree.

If you are "working for hire", or creating works for an employer or as a commission, the person employing you is the rightsholder. Usually this will happen when you're acting within the scope of your employment, such as if you are a graphic designer, or if you are contributing to a collective work and you and the commissioner have agreed in writing that it's going to be treated like a work for hire.


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What rights do copyright holders have?

1. Prepare copies from original
2. Prepare derivative works (i.e., new works based on an original, like a film adaptation of a novel or remixed music)
3. Distribute copies of the work for sale of other transfer of ownership
4. Perform the works publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic/choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures/other audiovisual works)
4. Display the works publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic/choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including individual images of a motion picture of other audiovisual works)
6. Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (applies to sound recordings)

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