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This guide overviews copyright, the public domain, and Creative Commons licensing.

Copyright FAQ

What is copyright?  Copyright symbol

Copyright allows creators to legally control how other people may access and use their creative works, specifically original literary and artistic works. As a type of intellectual property law, copyright automatically protects creative expressions, giving creators economic and moral rights to their works. That is, people must obtain the copyright holder's permission to copy, share, remix or adapt, or publicly perform a copyrighted work because creators have the right to get credit for and financially profit from their work and any derivatives or adaptations.

What's the point of copyright? 

The collective needs to access information to spark new ideas that will stimulate cultural and intellectual (collective) growth, but creators need incentives to share their ideas to be used. To meet creators' needs, copyright has two primary purposes: utilitarian and author's rights. Being able to regulate the use of one's work with a copyright is the utilitarian intention to incentivize folks to contribute to the collective knowledge commons. Author's rights recognizes that  creators have a moral right to get credit for and gatekeep the integrity of their work. In other words, author's rights strives to give creators full control over their works.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects original literary and artistic works. Meaning, in the United States an author must fix their creative expression of facts or ideas in a tangible form, such as a scholarly article, painting, photo, song, film, translations, compilations of works, and more. 

What isn't copyrightable? 

Copyright does not protect a fact or idea in itself. Fact you can't copyright: Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States. Also, if you verbalize a great idea with a friend, in the United States the friend legally can run with your idea because it was not fixed in a tangible form, like an email. Also US government information, or information produced by or for the government using tax payers' money, is not copyrightable. This include materials produced by all three branches of the government, judicial, legislative, and executive, as well as contracted work published by the Government Publishing Office (GPO). Finally, at USAFA work produced by Cadets and active duty military members are typically not copyrightable. Read more about your copyrights at USAFA in the left box. 

There also are other areas of intellectual property that copyright doesn't cover. Inventions fall under patent law, for instance, and logos and other branded materials are covered by trademark

How do I apply for copyright? 

Fixing your take on ideas and facts in a tangible medium is a valid way to gain copyright protection for your work in the United States. The US Copyright Office does have a process for formally registering your works, but it isn't necessary to prove your copyrights. Plus, copyright at the US Air Force Academy is a little complicated (see sidebar). 

What happens to copyrighted works when their time is up? 

Copyright terms vary by country, but in the United States copyright term is generally the lifetime plus 70 years of the author or 95 years for a corporation. Once the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain

What is the public domain? Creative Commons symbol for the Public Domain

The public domain is essentially a knowledge commons where information use is not restricted by copyright. Works enter the public domain in a variety of ways:

  • the copyright expires;
  • the author places their work in the public domain before their copyright expires;
  • the work was never entitled to copyright protection, such as government information (see the left sidebar for how this is true at USAFA);
  • or the copyright owner failed to legally establish and enforce their copyright.  

 Once something is in the public domain, you can reuse, remix, share, and more. However, it may still be a good moral practice to cite your sources, giving credit to the creators, especially when working with knowledge created by indigenous and other communities with moral practices that do not come with an expiration date. Check out these suggested practices for public domain works and the left sidebar about the public domain and USAFA.  

Find public domain works using Project GutenbergPublic Domain Review,  Digital Public Library of AmericaWikimedia CommonsInternet Archive, and Library of Congress.

Big take away

It is a difficult balance between giving credit and capitalizing on great work. When in doubt, only use what copyrighted material you need relevant to your argument and always cite your source. 

Creative Commons License
"Copyright" is licensed under a CC-BY-NC 4.0..

Questions? Contact Brooke Troutman