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Copyright Help for Theses (and Other Projects)

What Does Copyright Protect?

According to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of copyright law is “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.” This clause actually gives Congress two different powers. Copyright law protects original works of authorship. It doesn't protect facts, ideas, systems, names, terms or symbols. The Copyright Clause also gives the Congress the power to issues patents to "Inventors" to protect their exclusive rights to their "Discoveries."

Copyright and patent protection are conferred on a work differently, though. Patent protection requires a long and complex application process, and approval by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Copyright, on the other hand, is conferred to a work immediately and automatically upon the creation or expression. A work doesn't have to have a copyright symbol on it to be copyrighted, nor does it have to be registered to be protected. Works can, however, be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is an office of the Library of Congress. Works must be registered if the owner of the copyright hopes to recover statutory damages in the case of an infringement.

Public Domain & Creative Commons

In the case of material that is quite old, the material might be in the public domain and no longer protected by copyright. Because copyright law in the U.S. has changed a lot over the years, it can be complicated to figure out if a work is still protected by copyright.  See Peter Hirtle's (Cornell) excellent public domain chart or read more about the public domain at the Columbia copyright website.

Other materials, such as those produced by the federal government or those licensed with Creative Commons licenses, are also available for use without permission. Watch this brief video to learn more about Creative Commons licenses.

Sometimes the rights information provided can be confusing or misleading. If you're unsure whether the materials you want to use are copyrighted or not, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Start thinking about whether or not your use is fair, since fair use allows you to use copyrighted content without permission.
  • Contact a librarian and we can help walk you through it.