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Copyright Guide

Introduction and Overview

This guide is adapted from the UT System Office of General Counsel, Intellectual Property Specialty Area webpage, and the Copyright Crash Course guide maintained by the University of Texas-Austin Libraries Scholarly Communications. This guide is created to provide general information about U.S. copyright information, law, and resources available to the University of Texas System and its institutional members including faculty, staff, and students at the UTHealth-School of Public Health. Information in this guide not be construed as legal advice. The UTHealth Office of Legal Affairs provides legal advice and counsel regarding intellectual property.  

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Copyright also gives users the right to make certain uses of those works without permission. For in-depth information regarding the scope of copyright, please see the U.S. Copyright Office, sections 101-111.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. It covers both published and unpublished works as well as out-of-print work. Facts, ideas, procedures and processes, systems, discoveries, and systems/processes cannot be copyrighted. However, works can be protected by patent or trade secret laws. Copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the work has more than one author, the copyright protection lasts for the life of the last author plus 70 years.

To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be:

  • Original: To qualify as authentic, the work must be created independently and have "at least a modicum" of creativity.
  • A work of authorship: Works of authorship include literary works, musical works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, as well as many other types of creative works.
  • Fixed: A work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" by or under the author's authorization. Writing assignments on paper or a computer hard drive, recording work on tape, and sculpting pieces out of marble (or ice!) all satisfy this requirement. An unrecorded improvisation (e.g., in music or dance) would not fulfill this requirement.

Who owns the copyright?

The author owns the work, EXCEPT for when the work-for-hire rules apply. In this case, the employer owns the work when the scope of work is created for the employer. Please see the U.T. System Intellectual Property Policy which can permit faculty ownership of scholarly, artistic, literary, musical, and educational materials within the author's field of expertise. It also explains who is authorized to grant permission for use of works held by the university.

If two or more people make copyrightable contributions to work with the intent that their contributions be merged into one whole, they are joint authors under US law. As joint authors, they hold equal shares of the copyright from the time the work is created. A joint rightsholder owes her co-rightsholders their shares of the profits from uses or licenses she makes of the work. Joint rightsholders can grant non-exclusive licenses unilaterally. To transfer the copyright or grant an exclusive license, all joint rightsholders must agree.

What is considered fair use?

Fair use allows certain uses of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. There are four factors to consider when determining whether your use is a fair one. You must consider all the factors, but not all the factors have to favor fair use for the use to be fair.

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

  • The nature of the copyrighted work;

  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

  • Fair use favors “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, [and] research.” While many uses for educational purposes are fair, not all are. Evaluation of use each time copyrighted material is reproduced. For more information, see the Copyrighted material and Instruction tab.