4. Copyright Part I: Five Principles of Copyright When Planning to Share | Presentation

Anita R. Walz

Copyright is often perceived as an overwhelmingly complex or litigious topic. However, it does not need to be necessarily so. Academics and teachers with access to accurate information, especially when applied to particular contexts, can understand and feel comfortable implementing best practices for their and others’ materials.

The presentation and script “In Service of Others: Honoring Others’ Copyrights — and Making Your Work Useful (to others)” provides a two-part overview of copyright and open-licensing concepts and applications. Part I covers the basics of U.S. Copyright. These presentations are not legal advice nor intended to be exhaustive; rather, they are relevant to what academics and teachers need to know. Part I is about using others’ original works, and Part II is about creating and sharing works (in particular, sharing using open licenses) so that others have the flexibility to use the resources in ways that meet their specific needs or audiences.

One example is the author’s own adaptation of the slides and concepts for a different audience as shared at http://hdl.handle.net/10919/112575[1].

Learning Objectives

Learners should be able to:

  • Articulate copyright-related barriers in teaching, learning, and sharing.
  • Describe what can be under copyright, how it gets there, who is a copyright holder, and how long copyright lasts in a U.S. context.
  • Articulate and apply the default position of copyright regarding “ownership,” refuting common myths about student work and online materials. Namely, that everything is created by someone—unless it has entered the Public Domain or is still owned by someone (e.g., instructors are not automatically free to use student work or things they find “free online”).


  1. Read through the presentation and transcript for Part I (this section) and Part II (the next section).
  2. Document any questions including where the content is confusing.
  3. Reflect on what in the presentation is helpful. How could you shape it to make it more helpful?
  4. In two or fewer pages, reflect on what you would need to do to be able to be able to deliver some or all of this presentation.

In Service of Others: Honoring Others’ Copyrights — and Making Your Work Useful to others (Part I)

QR code

Google Slides: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1xOhDGYZO6FIxwoZqQN5T_2W9yhFeZI-TRbEVzg8FCK0/edit?usp=sharing

PowerPoint Slides: http://hdl.handle.net/10919/112264


Slide Deck Transcript


Suppose you own a bicycle, or other very useful, mainstream item which is common for your audience to own (e.g., a snow shovel, public transit pass, physics textbook, gaming console, etc.).

[interactive activity] Please raise your hand if you own a bicycle. [Hawa raises hand.] Ok, great. [ok to put hands down but ask students for their names.] If Javier wants to borrow Hawa’s bicycle, can he? [discussion] No, he needs to ask. And if Hawa does not respond, can he borrow it? [discussion] If Hawa says he can borrow it on Tuesday from 11:00-12:00, does that mean he can also use it on Wednesday from 9:00-10:00, or for the rest of the year? If he has permission to use it to get to class can he also use it in a competitive bike race? Can he paint it a different color? Since Hawa gave permission to Javier, does that mean Max can also use Hawa’s bicycle? No, of course not.

Copyright is a lot like this bicycle example. In the same way that someone owns even an unlocked, unaccompanied bicycle, someone likewise owns the digital artifact you found freely on the web, the picture published in a book you own, the architectural model you saw in Architecture Studio, or the cool diagram you saw on a conference poster. In the same way as borrowing a bicycle, you must obtain some sort of permission to use in-copyright works when those rights don’t belong to you.

When teaching requires research and publication, we often want to integrate the actual materials (not just citable ideas) into our own work. These are materials that someone else made. Do you have any examples from your own life/work/studies when you wanted to do this? Our work is often better when we draw on others’ expertise and what they have made. Well, this poses a problem, doesn’t it? We WANT to draw on a lot of sources that we didn’t create.

Two Dilemmas When Creating With Sharing in Mind

There are two questions here: 1) how to use others’ work legally and ethically, and 2) making your work useful for others who may need to customize or adapt it to fit their use.

While the following idea may be controversial, there is some expectation (a “should” if you will) that if we expect others to share in a certain way, that we too should be willing to do the same. The following information may help you to get there.

Part I: Five Things Everyone Should Know about Copyright

Let’s step back to look at some relevant underlying principles, not about what we do, but about the legal environment in which we function in the U.S.. We’re going to quickly go through a series of SIX principles that outline what you need to know about copyright. (We’ll cover #6 in the next section.)

Principle 1: Unless otherwise marked, always assume that every artifact’s copyrights are owned by someone. That someone might be YOU. Like a bicycle, unless clearly marked, or you have a highly informed reason to know otherwise. You should always assume that every created thing you see or hear which is somehow preserved or “recorded” (legal experts use the phrase “recorded in a fixed medium”) has copyrights owned by someone. This also includes content you don’t have to pay for that you find on the internet.

This means that unless your employer, sponsor, or work agreement or policy says otherwise, you have complete ownership over your original work! Note that in the U.S. most employers by default assert ownership over their employees’ work created on the job. However, if you are a university student, you own your work (unless you’re an employee or you have a prior arrangement with someone funding your schooling costs). You are a copyright owner!

Apply your new knowledge

  1. Who owns images you find on the internet?
  2. What about content found in physical or electronic books, DVDs, and/or streaming media owned by you (or to which you or your library subscribe)? Who owns that?
  3. True or false: An employer owns work-related, creative outputs of its employees.


  1. Who owns images you find on the internet? Likely other people.
  2. What about content found in physical or electronic books, DVDs, and/or streaming media owned by you (or to which you or your library subscribe)? Who owns that? The copyright holders of the materials. Likely other people. You may have access to the physical or streaming media, but you likely don’t own any copyrights in the work unless you have an agreement in writing.
  3. True or false: An employer owns work-related, creative outputs of its employees. True (Note that some employers, like Virginia Tech, grant some but not all rights back to their employees through the university’s Intellectual Property Policy.)

Principle 2: Copyright is automatic. Copyrights are established the moment a creative work is fixed in a medium , even if you never add a copyright symbol © to the work. A copyright is established by its creator the moment when they press “save,” as soon as one’s pen hits the paper to create a doodle, or the moment when your smartphone camera takes a video or a picture.

Apply your new knowledge

  1. Which of the following can be copyrighted, and why?
    • Recorded music from 2007
    • Photos I took with my phone
    • Pictures found using Google
    • Famous person’s birthday*
    • Your phone’s ring tone
    • TikTok video
    • Photos taken by your child
    • Unpublished journal article
    • Published journal article
    • Song you wrote but didn’t write down or record*
    • E = mc2 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105…*

Answer: Items with a * are not copyrightable

Works in a fixed medium created by human beings are automatically under copyright. Examples include: a sculpture, a filed saved to your computer or the cloud, a doodle on a piece of scratch paper, or a picture taken with your cell phone.

There are some things that cannot be under copyright. These include:

  • Ideas, facts, data, common knowledge
  • Narrative, image, song (when there is no record)
  • Works clearly donated to the Public Domain
  • Published in the US pre-1926*
  • Created by U.S. Government employees acting in an official capacity
  • Currently, works compiled by a computer such as an AI-generated image are not copyrightable.

*Note: The entry date of works into the Public Domain in the U.S. advances each year. As of Jan 1st 2023, it will be works published pre-1927. On Jan 1, 2024 it will be pre-1928, and so on. For more info, see: https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain.

Principle 3: All published works are destined for freedom from Copyright in the Public Domain, but it takes a long while for them to get there. When copyrighted materials reach a certain age, they “graduate” from Copyright and join the Public Domain and are free from copyright restrictions. (Note that “I found this free online” is not the same as being in the Public Domain.) Original works may also be donated or clearly marked by their maker as donated to the Public Domain (CC0). However, works made by U.S. Federal Employees during their official duties are automatically in the Public Domain in the United States.

So, in summary, works fall into three different categories: (1) works YOU made, whose rights you did not sell or give away, (2) works someone else made, and (3) works in the Public Domain.

Apply your new knowledge

What is the Public Domain? How does a work get into the Public Domain?


As of January 1, 2022, works published in the U.S. prior to 1927 are in the Public Domain. However, this is a rolling date that changes every year. If it is no longer 2022, use Cornell University’s “Copyright Term and the Public Domain Guide[2] to determine which works registered or first published in the U.S. are in the Public Domain.

Principle 4: Copyrights can be thought of as a creator’s monopoly (in duration and use) over a bundle of different rights. Relevant here are rights to copy, create other versions, publicly display, and distribute your work. These last the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years before graduating to the Public Domain. Unless a work is clearly a “work for hire,” for example, in a written contract, you as the author have a monopoly on these rights.

Apply your new knowledge

  • Describe the monopoly an author/creator obtains when making something.
  • How does the author/creator obtain this monopoly?
  • What do these monopoly rights include?
  • How long do these rights last and what happens to these rights when an author dies?


  • According to 17 U.S. Code § 106 and subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; (4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly; (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and (6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. Source: U.S. Code § 106 subject to sections 107-122.
  • This monopoly is automatic.
  • See above
  • These rights last (for an individual) for their lifetime plus 70 years. Upon death, unless rights were transferred, assigned, or willed elsewhere, these rights become part of the author’s estate and transfer to their heirs. The length of copyright for works created under corporate authorship is longer (120 years).

Principle 5: A creator/author may commoditize, license, or donate parts or the whole bundle of rights. 

As mentioned in principle 4, the “bundle” of rights relevant to us are rights to copy, create other versions (derivatives), publicly display, and distribute the work.

An author may retain, sell, donate, and/or license parts (or the whole bundle) to one party (an exclusive use) or to many parties, for limited times or for all time, within limited geographies or to all geographies, in certain media or in an infinite number of types of media.

Apply your new knowledge

Which of the following can a copyright owner do with their original writings or other creative works in a fixed medium? Which of these are mutually exclusive (i.e., for which could a copyright owner not do both)?

  • License an exclusive right to distribute copies
  • Apply a Creative Commons license to the work
  • Sell film rights separately from book publication rights
  • Give away rights to make other versions or sequels
  • Donate works to the Public Domain


A copyright owner can do any of these things. If a copyright owner is extending exclusive rights, the copyright holder cannot extend those rights to anyone else.


  • What five things should everyone know about copyrights?
  • What problems do these raise for creators? For people who might want to use others’ in-copyright works?

Additional Reading

Ellis, E. & Smith, K. (2020). Coaching Copyright. ALA Editions. https://www.alastore.ala.org/content/coaching-copyright [not open access]

  1. Walz, A. R. (2022). Finding, using, and sharing: An Introduction to copyright, fair use, and creative commons licenses for virginia master naturalists. VTechWorks. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/112575
  2. Cornell University, [n.d.] Copyright term and the Public Domain. https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain


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Making Open Educational Resources with and for PreK12 Copyright © 2023 by Anita R. Walz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.