General Copyright FAQs

What is a copyright?

A copyright is the grant of protection by the laws of the United States to the authors of “original works” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, architectural, and certain other intellectual works, and is available for both published and unpublished works. An owner has the exclusive right to do or to authorize others to do the following:

  • reproduce the work, create derivative works, distribute copies of the work, perform the copyrighted work publicly, and
  • display the work publicly. Software may be copyrighted, but may also, in certain circumstances, be protected by a patent.

What is the life of a copyright?

Copyrights are in effect for the life of the last surviving author, plus 70 years. If the work is produced as a result of the author’s employment (a work for hire), the term is 95 years from the first publication, for 120 years after the creation of the work, whichever is shorter.

How do you file for copyright protection?

Copyright protection automatically exists from the moment of creation, and a work is created when it is fixed in a tangible form. Therefore, no publication or registration or other action by the Copyright Office is required to secure a copyright, although certain advantages are retained for registered copyrights, such as the right to seek damages for copyright infringement.

Why can’t anyone just give me a definite yes or no when I ask a copyright questions?

Unfortunately there is rarely a simple answer on copyright. Instead of being black and white, it is varying shades of gray. Until someone actually goes to court and a court rules, it is all interpretation. No one wants to be that first case.

Social Media

Do I need permission to use material posted on the internet, on Facebook, on a blog/wiki, or other such site?

Yes, items posted online are normally as copyrighted as a published book, journal, newspaper, movie, or song. If you want to reference such an item, you should cite it to avoid plagiarism. If you want to copy, reuse, alter, perform, or play it publicly, you should treat it as you would other published materials, seeking permission from the owner as needed. Since the internet is changing much more quickly than copyright laws and the courts, the enforceability of copyright to some material is still in question (for example, internet memes that take a photo and add text above/below it).

May I put the Facebook and/or Twitter symbols on my handouts or webpage?

Like other companies (and even East Carolina University), Facebook and Twitter have guidelines on which symbols you can use and in what circumstances. Check out their policies.

Trademarks, Patents, & Licenses

What are trademarks, servicemarks, trade dress, and trade secrets?

Sometimes confused with copyright, these distinct forms of intellectual property are governed by other laws. Trademarks and servicemarks are texts, images, and even sounds used in commerce to brand a product or service differently from another. Trade dress applies to the physical look of a product and its packaging. Trade secrets are commercially beneficial information valuable only if not widely known; for instance, recipes cannot be copyrighted or trademarked and generally cannot be patented, but they can still have tremendous value (e.g. the formula for Coca-Cola). More information on all four may be found at the US Patent & Trademark Office website.

What trademarks and servicemarks are held by ECU?

ECU holds numerous marks — for lists of them, visit Graphics and Licensing Standards and click on the pages on the left menu bar. For details on how to use them, if authorized to do so, consult The University Image publication.

Whom do I ask to license ECU’s name, logo, mascot, etc.?

Consult ECU Licensing for details. General answers may be found on ECU Licensing’s FAQ page.

What are patents? How do they relate to copyright?

Patents are time-limited monopolies granted to inventors so they can profit from their inventions — this serves as an incentive to inventors and repays the often high cost of research and development that go into inventions. Patents are for inventions (e.g. machines and some computer software), whereas copyright is for creative works (e.g. song, journal article, book). The US Patent & Trademark Office has detailed resources available on patents.

Who is my ECU contact if my research might need a patent? Would ECU own or share in any such patents?

ECU’s Office of Licensing and Commercialization should be contacted to discuss questions about patents for research or other activities conducted by ECU students, faculty, and staff. See especially OLC’s patent FAQ.

What are licenses and contracts?

Licenses and contracts are related methods used to establish legal agreements between two or more parties that detail actions that a party is permitted to do by the other or that details what each party will or will not do. Websites and online services often contain terms and conditions or End User License Agreements (EULAs) that place restrictions on use. The user’s consent to these terms and conditions or EULAs may be implicit (for example, through the presence of a link at the bottom of the page to terms of use) or may be explicitly required prior to access. The ECU Libraries sign licenses and contracts to obtain access to many of the Libraries’ collections, including databases, e-journals, e-books, and streaming videos.

How does copyright interact with licenses and contracts?

The laws that cover copyright, licenses, and contracts are very different. Even if an action is permitted under Copyright law, the action may nevertheless be prohibited due to the restrictions of a license or contract. One example of how licenses interact with copyright is interlibrary loan, which obtains articles, books, and other materials for you if ECU does not own them. The US Copyright Law grants libraries throughout the US special leeway so they can send copies of articles to each other. Some contracts that govern access to library databases (the online journal articles, e-books, etc.), however, do not permit interlibrary loan copying. So, even though a library might be permitted under Copyright law to provide an article that you requested for your paper, the contract that the library signed to obtain a database for its researchers might prevent it from being able to send the article to ECU for your use. Questions about terms of use for specific ECU Libraries resources should be directed to Academic Library Services’ Ask a Librarian service or Laupus Library’s Collection Services Department.

Another way that copyright interacts with licenses and contracts specifically deals with Fair Use. Note that Fair Use exceptions are to Copyright law, not the terms of a license or contract. If a contract or license explicitly prohibits a specific form of use, Fair Use does not provide a legal basis for violation of the contract or license terms.

Citations & Permissions

When do I need to obtain copyright permission? May I simply cite the work instead?

A citation is all that is usually needed for university coursework (e.g. research papers and class presentations).

ECU graduate students writing a thesis or a dissertation should contact rights holders to obtain permissions for any material beyond a reasonable quotation (e.g. a paragraph from a book). Use of any graphics or forms should have permission obtained. The permission granting letter from the rights holder must be included in the submission to the Graduate School.

Documents intended for a larger audience (e.g. journal articles, books, conference presentations, social media, personal websites) should receive a careful review for copyright compliance. If you include charts, graphs, figures, photographs, multiple paragraphs of text, test instruments or surveys from another work, or video or music clips, you should seriously consider contacting the respective rights holders to obtain permission to reprint, broadcast, or perform their works. When possible, it is always better from a copyright perspective to link to the material on another site or to refer to it rather than reproducing it in your own work.

Some rights holders will require copyright royalties to be paid. If this is the case, you can either pay the fees or rethink your inclusion of the materials — perhaps simply referring to the text or song would not diminish your work too much. Contact the Copyright Officer if you have questions or would like assistance locating whom the rights holders are.

Where do I go to obtain copyright permissions?

The Copyright Clearance Center (copyright.com) is usually the best place to start for journals because it handles permissions for many publishers. The CCC will show what rights are available for an item (e.g. reserves, classroom distribution, publication) and what copyright royalty fees, if any, are charged for each. You can pay online or be invoiced for any royalty payments you make. Response and approval are usually instant online.

If the CCC does not process copyright for the desired material, you should contact the rightsholder directly. Columbia University’s Copyright Advisory Office has posted some templates that you might consider using a guide to your own permissions request letter.

Who is the rights holder?

Generally speaking, journal publishers have traditionally owned the rights to articles, not the authors; with the open access movement and greater awareness of author rights, authors are retaining certain rights to their works more often than in the past. Authors of books usually own their rights — check in the first few pages of the book for the copyright notice to be sure (e.g. it might instead be owned by a publisher or a sponsoring organization). Videos, sound recordings, art, and other materials can be more complex to identify (e.g. the movie and the music used in it might be owned by different rights holders). Sometimes approval will be received quickly and for free; other times there might be a delay, royalties charged, or a denial. If you would like help locating the rights holder, please ask.

What do I do if the rights holder refuses my request or if I cannot pay the quoted royalties?

You could attempt to negotiate with the rights holder — a better explanation of your intent might change the rights holder’s mind. You could potentially refer to the work without including copies of it (e.g. instead of reproducing charts and quoting paragraphs of explanation, just paraphrase and cite the original work). You could include another work that does not need permissions (e.g. public domain or Creative Common materials). You could use another work that will grant permissions or will do so at a cost you can afford.

What records should I keep?

Save any documentation that proves that you received permission, including any payment receipts. Save copies of all copyright permission emails and letters along the way — sometimes rights holders are unable to be located and having this documentation shows a good faith effort on your part if you decide to use the material and are later accused of infringement.

Protecting Your Works

Who protects my works?

Simply put, you do. The government typically does not police copyright infringement as it does other crimes. Instead, it is up to you and your colleagues,
friends, and family (or a licensing agency, see question below) to watch for infringement. Once infringement is noticed, a lawsuit may be threatened or filed.

How do I ensure that I retain rights to books that I write for publication?

Read the publication contract to ensure that you retain the rights you want to your work after it is published. Sometimes you might want to sign away some rights to the publisher to get the book published and so the publisher can handle the distribution, translation, and other tasks. You should particularly look for terms that grant irrevocable rights to the publisher for all future possible means of distribution; you might, for instance, attempt to negotiate only to grant or to transfer rights to the publisher to publish the book in print format for 15 years, after which you would regain those distribution rights.

To ensure the greatest protections for your works and the highest financial damages paid to you if someone were to infringe upon it in the future, you should register your work with the United States Library of Congress. See the US Copyright Office webpage for details about the registration process, cost, and submission requirements.

How do I ensure that I retain rights to journal articles and book chapters that I write for publication?

Ideally, look on the journal’s/publisher’s website for its copyright policy, or email the editor, prior to submitting the article. Most journals/publishers will send you a publication contract or copyright transfer document after your document has been accepted. Read the contract very carefully. If you do not understand it, feel free to ask ECU’s Copyright Officer to review it with you. If it includes terms that exclusively transfer, relinquish, or grant for in perpetuity the copyright in the article to the publisher, you can often negotiate to retain some rights to reuse your works as you desire. A good start is the SPARC addendum. Many publishers will accept reduced rights if you ask. If your desired publisher will not, then you have to decide which is more important: keeping your rights or getting published.

How do I protect my rights in works I post to websites & social media sites (Facebook, Flickr, etc.)?

Read the entire terms of use of any website or social media site that you use. You might be surprised that the sites claim rights to your works by virtue of you posting them on their sites (e.g. the right to use or sell the photos you post). If you do not like their terms, consider using another site or be careful what you post on the site — you might, for instance, on a site that has undesirable terms, simply post a link to your work that is posted on a site that does allow you to retain your rights, restrict downloads, etc.

Even if the site doesn’t claim rights to your works, you should state on your site or on your entries that you clearly retain rights to your works. It can be as simple as a copyright notice or a Creative Commons notice placed on the bottom on the webpages, or, for pictures, you can place a watermark on the photos themselves. Such actions indicate that you do reserve your automatic rights under copyright to your works and reminds others than just because your works are posted online doesn’t mean that they can be freely used by anyone for any purpose.

Creative Commons has developed a “Choose Your License” workflow to walk you through which Creative Commons license might be right for your desired purposes.

When should I consider paying a licensing agency to help me protect my works?

This is a decision probably best weighed by the likelihood of others infringing on your rights, the likely financial damage to you from such infringement,
the amount of time and effort you want to commit to seeking out possible infringement, and the cost you are willing to pay an agency to handle such policing and enforcement actions on your behalf. If you write a textbook, compose a piece of music, or create another work that has true commercial value, joining an agency might be something you should carefully consider.

Lectures & Presentations

Who owns the course materials created for a class, whether face-to-face or distance education? These materials include syllabi, lecture notes, quizzes, study guides, essay questions, and other such materials.

The University of North Carolina Copyright Policy 500.2 addresses this issue. A quick answer in most circumstances is that faculty members own the materials they create; ECU, however, also has “shop rights” to copy and use any materials a faculty member has created during employment at ECU (e.g. the faculty member leaves and the University wants to continue to offer the course). If an ECU staff member has prepared these materials as part of his/her job, ECU owns the copyright in them.

Who owns course lectures?

The lecture itself, being spoken word, is not copyrighted because it is not fixed in a tangible medium. Only the written lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, handouts, etc. would be covered by copyright; these would be owned by the faculty member or the respective rights holders (e.g. excerpts from a book that are shared with a class).

As a student, may I copy recordings of lectures, test questions, my course notes, etc. for others or upload them to websites that promote sharing such materials? Also, if I record a lecture, who owns it?

ECU prohibits commercial exploitation (see 7.1.3) of course materials prepared by faculty, including lecture slides, course notes, quizzes, tests, etc. — this includes uploading to websites that might be free to you to use, but which might be selling advertisements on the site or repackaging the uploaded documents to sell.

If you would like to record a course lecture to replay to help you study or to share with a classmate who is out sick, ask your instructor for permission.

What about presentations outside of class at workshops, conferences, etc.?

Check with the organizers of the event and review any documents or websites that explain the event. Look for the terms to see if you are permitted to record the event or duplicate event materials. Most likely, you are not permitted to do so without permission from the event organizers and/or the presenters.

If you are one of the presenters, make sure you know if the event organizers will be taking photographs of you and your work, video or audio recording your presentation, or publishing it in a proceedings document. If you are concerned about them distributing your work, discuss it with them, ideally before the event rather than during or after it.

Often, such rights are granted by you by your acceptance to present at the event — it might be in the document on which you submit your presentation proposal, in a contract or agreement the organizers send to you to accept your presentation, etc.

What about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), iTunes U, and other such open classroom initiatives?

For a detailed discussion on the possible interplay of MOOCs and other such courses with copyright and licensing issues, consult the recent excellent article on this emerging topic by Academic Impressions.

Course Reserves

What may be placed on library course reserve?

Please refer to each library’s course reserve procedures for guidance as to what each library can place on reserve, for how long, etc.

How much of a book may be scanned for electronic course reserve?

While the law does not define a set amount, the guideline based on court cases and best practices is about 10%.

If your expected use would require scanning a significant portion of a work, you might consider assigning it as a required or supplemental text to be purchased — doing so would remove the copyright issue of scanning. Otherwise, a review of fair use guidelines and court cases may be used to weigh special considerations, including when a book is no longer in print or for sale.

May entire articles be scanned for electronic course reserve?

If the article is one to which ECU has online access, you should link directly to it whenever possible to avoid copyright and licensing issues. An on-screen tutorial is available from the ECU Libraries to help explain how do so, but you may also ask the libraries for help linking to articles.

If the article is one that ECU owns in print or microform, the libraries can usually scan it for electronic reserve.

If the article is neither available online nor in hardcopy from the ECU libraries, then, as with books above, we must consider whether copyright royalties might need to be paid.

Do my course reserve materials need be through Canvas, or may I have them on my webpage?

Scanned materials for electronic course reserve must only be accessible to enrolled students and instructors of a course. Having them available through Canvas, restricted to the course, meets the requirement. Posting scanned documents to an open website does not.

Video: Streaming & Classroom Use

May I link to YouTube videos and other online videos in my Canvas class page?

Yes, you may link to such sources. Using a link removes copyright concerns since you are neither copying or broadcasting the video. One warning, though, if you knowingly link to a video on a website that is illegally posted on that site, you could risk being charged with contributory infringement.

May I show YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other online videos to my on-campus class?

Each site has a terms of service, or license, that governs use of that site. What might be allowed under copyright for instruction might not be allowed under the license. There is debate over whether these licenses exclude classroom use, but it is clear that none of them explicitly permit it. There has yet to be a clarifying court case or decisive statement from the companies. The safest courses of action are to show a VHS or DVD, to show a video from one of ECU Libraries’ streaming video databases, and to refer students to view streaming content using their own accounts outside the classroom. Additionally, an instructor may submit a request to the relevant liaison librarian for the acquisition of rights to show individual films to classes; note that, due to budgetary limitations, not all requests can be met.

May I show movies, TV shows, documentaries, and other DVD or VHS content in the classroom?

Yes, showing the video in class is permissible under classroom use if it is related to the academic instruction of the day, however the class may not be taped or recorded.

Only students enrolled in the course and the instructor should be present in the class during the showing of the video. You do not need to obtain ‘public display’ rights for videos shown for instructional purposes in a course. You would need ‘public display’ rights for other showings (e.g. club meetings & dorm socials).

May I place videos or stream videos on my Canvas site or other websites for my DE (distance education) students to view?

No, not without permission from the copyright holder of the film. The law currently treats on-campus face-to-face classes and on-line classes differently.
Permission for popular videos is usually cost prohibitive, however the Copyright Officer will be happy to assist you in how to seek permission. The ECU Libraries subscribe to several databases with streaming videos, including Films on Demand, which provides legal streaming access to thousands of titles — ask a librarian to see what is available in your discipline. These videos may legally be incorporated into Canvas or used in a face-to-face class. You may link to online sites (e.g. Netflix or Amazon) where recommended videos are available to students to access them at their own cost. Alternatively, you may submit a request to the relevant liaison librarian for the library to acquire a streaming version of a film if it is available; note that, due to budgetary limitations, not all requests can be met.

My face-to-face class is recorded via MediaSite/Camtasia/other means. Since the video/cartoon/image was shown to a face-to-face class first, do I have to have permission for those images?

You still need permission for the videos or other images because they are being “transmitted.” Even though Canvas is password protected, an item could easily be saved and re-used. When you show something in class, you are not making a copy; when you record it and stream it to many computers, you are making many copies.

ECU’s Joyner Library or Laupus Library owns the DVD or VHS. Does that mean that I can have it streamed online for my courses?

No. What either library owns is one physical copy of the title on DVD or VHS, not the rights to reproduce, reformat, and broadcast the video. There are three available options:

  1. Select an alternative from the streaming films available at the library. The ECU Libraries subscribe to several databases with streaming videos, which provides legal streaming access to thousands of titles — ask a librarian to see what is available in your discipline.
  2. Purchase (or send a request to your liaison librarian for the library to purchase) a streaming version of the film if one exists. Note that, due to budgetary limitations, not all requests can be met.
  3. If a streaming version is not for sale, discuss with the Copyright Officer a request for permission to create a streaming copy from the copyright holder.

“Someone” said that recently a court ruled we can break the circumvention code to show videos.

This is the wording – “…to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment…” Short portions, not the entire work, and new works–not just to show to a class.

Dissertations & Theses

Does uploading my dissertation or thesis to ECU’s institutional repository (The ScholarShip) and to ProQuest transfer or give up my copyright to either or both institutions?

No, you retain the full copyright to your dissertation or thesis. By uploading your work to ECU and ProQuest, you only grant permission to both to maintain copies of your work, to display your work, to migrate your work into future digital formats, and, if you so desire, for ProQuest to sell copies of your work through third-party vendors (e.g. Amazon).

Does the publication of my dissertation or thesis count as a previous publication when I go to publish articles or a book from material within my dissertation or thesis?

Not usually. In the past few years, some publishers have changed their rules. To be sure, ask the journal editor or your publisher.

Do I need to be concerned about using copyrighted works in my dissertation or thesis?

Yes, because you are creating a copy of another’s work and distributing it by publishing your dissertation or thesis. You must ensure compliance with copyright law. Many uses will be considered Fair Use, but not all. Consult the various Fair Use checklists that are available on the web to help you determine if your intended use is more likely Fair Use or if you will need to seek permission from the rights holders. Older works (usually those published before 1923) might be in the public domain, so no permissions would be needed. Determining Fair Use, rights holders, and copyright status can be difficult, so feel free to contact the Copyright Officer with your questions.

Pictures & Images

When can I freely use a picture or other graphic?

Most photographs, charts, tables, graphs, and reproductions of drawings and paintings are protected by copyright, even if they are on websites from which you can download or capture them. You should always give a citation for any image used. Permission should be sought to use an image on your website or social media account, to include an image in a media production, or to publish an image in a journal article or book.

The ECU Libraries subscribe to many image databases that have image content you can use for academic purposes in accordance with copyright law and ECU’s subscription licenses.

Selected Free Image Sources

What are the copyright issues around 3D printing?

3D printing is increasing in ease and availability, and is becoming much cheaper to do. When ‘printing’ items, there could be either copyright or patent concerns, or both, depending on the item being printed. Creating a figurine based on a photograph of a sculpture could be a derivative work and require copyright permission to do so. Creating a mechanical part of a machine could be a violation of a patent, which carries much higher potential infringement penalties. An excellent white paper discussing 3D printing is available at http://publicknowledge.org/Copyright-3DPrinting.

File Sharing

Peer to Peer File Sharing

Downloading files – especially pictures, songs, TV shows, and movies – from sites on the internet is often in violation of copyright, as is uploading or making such files you have available to others. This is often called peer to peer or P2P or file sharing. Sites that allow for illegal downloading come and go frequently as they are caught and sued. To help ensure that you do not mistakenly download illegally posted content, consider that if the material is still being sold in stores that the copy you are about the download is probably not a legal copy.

If you are an ECU student, faculty, or staff member, downloading or making available copyrighted material is, in addition to a potential violation of copyright law, most likely a violation of ECU’s rules of conduct, which could result in your loss of access to the ECU computer network or even expulsion or loss of your job. Some uses, however, might be allowed under Fair Use provisions of the copyright law — see the section below on sharing for coursework or research.

For more information about file sharing, visit ECU ITCS’s file sharing webpage.

Sharing for Classwork & Research

Some sharing of copyrighted materials is permitted under Fair Use. Types of general activities allowed some leeway include non-commercial research, criticism, commentary, and news reporting. For instance, sharing notes or handouts from a class with a classmate who missed that day’s lecture and sharing a scholarly article you find with a group project member might be allowable, but posting those same documents on a website or sending them by email to others not participating in the class or research project would likely not be an allowable use. If in doubt, ask, or conduct a Fair Use analysis. Two useful guides for conducting a Fair Use analysis are the University of Minnesota’s Copyright page and the ALA’s Fair Use Evaluator.