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A Guide to Creative Commons

This guide will house content from the Creative Commons Certificate Course completed from June to August, 2020.

Copyright Basics

Copyright laws grant a set of exclusive rights to who can copy, distribute, perform, adapt, or otherwise use creative work. These exclusive rights include:

  • creating authorized translations of their works
  • making copies of their works
  • publicly perform and communicate their works to the public, including via broadcast
  • creating adaptations and arrangements of their works

Typically the copyright of a work is held by the creator of the work. There are exceptions in which the creator may not exclusively own the copyright to the work including works-for-hire or jointly created works.

The two main rationales or philosophies for copyright law include utilitarian, that copyright is designed to provide an incentive to creators, and author’s rights, that copyright is primarily intended to preserve the integrity of creative works by ensuring attribution for authors. Other considerations for copyright law include the concept of moral rights, which serve to protect the bond between author and creation and are recognized in Article 6bis of the Berne Convention. Copyright is granted in the U.S. under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. The full text of all U.S. Copyright code can be found at

Watch the video below to learn more about the history of copyright.

"#FixCopyright: Copy (aka copyright) Tells the Story of His Life" by FixCopyright is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Protecting IP

Intellectual property (IP) is a term that describes legally protected human creations. 


Copyright is a form of IP for certain works including:

  • Literary and artistic works, including collections
  • Translations, adaptations, arrangements of music, literary, and artistic works
  • Applied art and industrial designs and models
  • Graphical works, including certain icons
  • Most types of sound recordings
  • Computer software and programs

While copyright law ensures control over the expression of an idea, it does not grant the right to exclusively own or control the idea itself. Nor does copyright law protect facts, procedures, methods, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries. Additionally, works created by the government such as official legislative or legal documents or rulings are not subject to copyright. 


Copyright is automatic and takes place the moment a work is fixed in a tangible medium. It is usually the burden of the copyright holder to protect their copyright if they suspect a violation. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act exempted Internet service providers and other intermediaries from liability if their users violate copyright. This lead some companies, most notably YouTube, to develop automated systems that aim to detect copyright violations on the owner’s behalf.

While registration is not required to own the copyright to a work, it is helpful to have when trying to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation as a way to prove exclusive ownership. To register a work online visit the U.S. Copyright Office Registration Portal.


Even though a creator is automatically granted copyright, there are exceptions that help balance the interests of the creator and the interests of the public to freely use and adapt work. The most notable exception is the Fair Use Doctrine, established in the U.S. under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright code which allows for legal unlicensed use of copyrighted material in another creator's work under a four-factor test.

The four factors of Fair Use are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use,
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work,
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole, and
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for the work.

Other exemptions from copyright include the TEACH Act which allows educators from accredited, nonprofit institutions certain unlicensed uses of copyrighted works in the classroom (both face-to-face and digital) as well as Section 108 which allows libraries and archives to reproduce and distribute certain copyrighted works without permission on a limited basis for the purposes of preservation, replacement, and research.


patent is a type of IP that provides time-limited exclusive rights to an inventor that prevents others from making, selling, distributing, or using their invention. Similar to copyright law, patent law encourages inventors to create unique and useful inventions.

A trademark is a type of IP in the form of a design or expression for a company, product, or service and is meant to help consumers distinguish between brands and for brands to protect their reputation. 

Unlike copyright, trademarks and patents must be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in order for rights to be established and enforceable.

The Public Domain

The purpose of setting a time limit on the term of copyright is so that works may eventually be freely used by the public. This status is known as the public domain. Works in the public domain are no longer protected by copyright restrictions. Because of the evolving nature of U.S. copyright laws, it is difficult to determine exactly when a certain work may enter the public domain. The Cornell Library created a chart that provides more information: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

While all works will eventually move to the public domain, there are other ways that work can join the public domain including:

Creators who choose to add or dedicate their works to the public domain before their copyright expires. Creative Commons includes a CC0 (CCZero) Public Domain Dedication license that allows creators to indicate their work is in the public domain.

Works that are not entitled to copyright protection, such as most works created by the U.S. government as outlined in Section 105 of U.S. Copyright Law or utilitarian items. For more examples review Circular 33 from the U.S. Copyright Office.  

The concept of the public domain is important to the production of creative works, providing an ever-growing pool of free resources to be used and adapted by a society. The exact limitations to public domain works vary by country and use. While it is not always necessary to give attribution to works in the public domain, it is always encouraged. Creative Commons developed a helpful list of guidelines for the use of public domain works.

Licensing Statement

"Copyright Law" by Roxanna Palmer is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International License unless stated otherwise. Based on 07_2020_CC Certification Certificate for Librarians course under a CC BY 4.0 license.