Written By: Soutron Global Guest Blogger, Lesley Ellen Harris of Copyrightlaws.com


There are 7 essential facts that every corporate librarian or information professional needs to know about copyright law. Copyright compliance is usually the domain of librarians and information professionals and understanding copyright law principles is key for lowering your risks of copyright infringement.


#1: Ideas are Not Protected by U.S. Copyright Law.


U.S. copyright law doesn’t protect ideas, facts, historical facts, or news. It’s the expression of ideas (and facts, news, etc.) that’s protected by copyright.

Tip:  You can summarize an article based on news events, as long as you prepare the summary in your own words.


#2: Copyright Protection is Automatic.


Copyright is automatic upon the creation of a work in a fixed form. For example, a document is automatically protected once it is written on paper or saved to your computer’s hard drive. The international copyright symbol and notice (for example, © ABC Corp. 2019) is not mandatory for copyright protection.

Tip: If you want to republish an online article that does not have copyright information, you may still need to obtain copyright permission.


#3: Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is Voluntary.


Registering works with the U.S. Copyright Office, which requires depositing a copy of the work, also isn’t mandatory for copyright protection, but it does provide benefits. For the copyright owner, registration provides a presumption of copyright ownership and provides certain benefits when pursuing a copyright infringement lawsuit. From a librarian’s perspective, if a copyright owner registers their work, a librarian can check the Copyright Office registers for information about the copyright work and owner.

Tip: Since registration is voluntary, a search of the Copyright Office’s records may not yield the information you need about the copyright owner.


#4: Copyright Duration in the U.S. is Life Plus 70.


The international norm for the duration of copyright protection is the life of the author plus 50 years, as set out in the leading international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention. However, some countries, including the United States and European Union countries, go beyond this norm and provide copyright protection for life plus 70 years.

Tip: Canada still has a copyright duration of life plus 50 years so if you’re using content in Canada, copyright expires 50 years after the author’s death.


#5: You Must Have Permission to Use a Copyright-Protected Work, Even if You Cannot Locate The Copyright Owner.


With few exceptions, you need permission from the owner of a copyright-protected work to use it. That said, it isn’t always possible to locate a copyright owner. The works of unlocatable copyright owners are called “orphan works.”

Tip: If you can’t identify or locate a copyright owner (or if a copyright holder doesn’t reply to your permission requests), there’s no mechanism under U.S. copyright law that allows you to legally use that work. If you’re using the work in Canada, however, you may be able to obtain an unlocatable copyright owner’s license from the Copyright Board of Canada.


#6: You Don’t Need Permission To Use a Work That’s in the Public Domain.


If a work is in the public domain, you can use it in any manner — even modify it — without having to obtain permission. Some works are in the public domain because their copyright duration has expired or they didn’t qualify for copyright protection in the first place (such as most works of the U.S. government).

Tip: Creative Commons licensed works are not necessarily in the public domain (read the terms and conditions in the CC license before using a CC licensed work).


#7: Fair Use May Apply to Corporate Libraries.


The U.S. Copyright Act contains the principle of fair use. However, the act doesn’t explicitly set out what uses constitute fair use; instead, it sets out types of uses to which fair use might apply and factors to consider in determining whether a use may be fair use. A fair use judgement depends on the circumstances in each situation and must be interpreted by each individual using content in each situation. Both for profit and nonprofit organizations may apply fair use to its particular situations.

The ultimate arbiter of fair use is a judge in a court of law. Due to the ambiguity of fair use and the risk involved in applying it, some enterprises avoid it. Others, on the other hand, embrace fair use in their organization.

Tip: Learn and understand your library’s policy and procedures on making a fair use judgment.