This guide was created by library faculty in consultation with CUNY's Office of General Counsel and is intended to support the CUNY community in making independent, informed decisions about copyright compliance and educational fair use.
Copyright is a form of protection granted by U.S. law to the creators of “original works of authorship” including scholarly and creative works. It gives creators certain exclusive rights. Creators do not have to register their work or attach a copyright notice in order for copyright protection to apply to the work; the protection exists automatically from the time the work is created.
Copyright protections apply to both scholarly and creative works that you create and works that you use.
If you want to use a work for a project or class, and are unsure if you need permission from the copyright holder, you can consult this checklist created by the CUNY Office of Legal Affairs and read about the copyright exceptions (like "fair use") in the FAQ section on the right side of this page.
Even though copyright protections are automatic, there is also a lot of multi-media and educational content available for reuse. In cases where an individual wants to make a work they created available for others to use, they may opt to use a Creative Commons license that specifies exactly how others can use their work. The Creative Commons search widget on the right side of this page will let you search for reusable multimedia content. Scholars can also opt to publish their works in Open Access journals or negotiate with publishers to retain some rights to their work.
What can you do to make your own work available? You can license your own scholarly and creative work through Creative Commons or use an author addendum before agreeing to a restrictive publication agreement. (Link to sparcopen.org's "author addendum" fixed July 2023)
According to section 106 of U.S. Copyright Law, owners of copyright have the exclusive rights to do and authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work; (2) to prepare derivative works; (3) to distribute copies of the copyrighted work; (4) to perform the copyrighted work publicly; (5) to display the copyrighted work publicly. Read more: Chapter 1: Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright.
Any work that is published in the U.S. today is copyright protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. After this time period, works enter the public domain. Works that were first published in the U.S. before 1923 are now in the public domain and can be freely reproduced, distributed, performed, and displayed by anyone. This chart can assist you in determining whether a work is in the public domain, and if not, how long it will be protected by copyright.
Fair Use allows us to use other people's work in a variety of cases - such as parody, criticism, education and news reporting - without first seeking permission. By relying on Fair Use we can learn from other people's knowledge and ethically build on their works. To learn more about Fair Use, read more here. For help determining if the use you have in mind qualifies as Fair Use, consult this tool.
The Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act describes the conditions under which instructors and students may perform and display copyrighted materials in a virtual or digital classroom without obtaining permission from the copyright owner. These are bright-line rules; if your proposed use meets all the TEACH Act requirements, permission is not required to use the work. If your proposed use does not meet all the requirements, the use may still be permitted without permission of the copyright holder under fair use. To learn more about the TEACH Act, read more here.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is an amendment to the Copyright Act that provides internet service providers (ISPs) such as CUNY with safe harbors from liability for copyright infringement by users of the service, if the ISP complies with certain conditions. In order to receive the safe harbor protection, the DMCA requires CUNY to respond when notified of infringing material located on CUNY networks. CUNY receives notices every week on behalf of copyright owners alleging that people have used CUNY servers to illegally download music, software, movies, TV shows and other media. Consistent with the DMCA, CUNY then takes step to confirm the file sharing and identify and discipline the user. U.S. Copyright Office information on DMCA
Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs have become a popular way to exchange music, movies, games and software over the Internet. Academic applications of these programs are also expanding. If you use P2P programs, we want you to be aware of certain personal risks.
P2P file-sharing programs are not illegal. If you own the copyright in the music, movie, software or other file you want to share, if you have the permission of the copyright holder, or if the material is not covered by copyright (in the public domain), you can share the file. However, P2P programs are often used to distribute files without permission of the copyright holder and this is a violation of U.S. copyright law. CUNY Notice to the community about file sharing.
Ownership of intellectual property created by full-time and part-time faculty, staff, and graduate students engaged in faculty-directed research, as well as individuals compensated by grant funds made available to the University by or through the Research Foundation is covered by the CUNY Intellectual Property Policy. The general rule is that Copyrightable Works are owned by their creator. This means that faculty members typically own the copyright in their scholarly and pedagogical works.
Most students are not covered by the CUNY Intellectual Property Policy. Their ownership rights are governed by the Copyright Act, which grants copyright ownership to the author of a work (i.e., the student), unless it is a work-for-hire. Consequently, classroom assignments, student papers and the like are owned by the student. Additional resources available from CUNY Legal Affairs Copyright Materials.
Creative Commons (CC) offers licenses that run parallel to U.S. copyright law. It allows an author to choose the license that enables the free distribution of their otherwise copyrighted work to their specifications.