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Copyright Guide

A primer on copyright law and fair use


Welcome to the Southeastern Louisiana University Copyright Guide

Copyright protection has always been an important issue, even from the very inception of the United States when James Madison in 1787 first submitted a provision to the framers of the Constitution to protect the work of literary authors. It was May 1790 when the first copyright law was enacted, protecting only books, maps and charts. Since that time, just as the types of creative media have expanded, so has copyright protection. Today, Title 17 of the U.S. Code, which includes the Copyright Act of 1976 (the latest general revision of copyright law) along with a long list of amendments, protects literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, architectural works, motion pictures, audiovisual works and sound recordings. This protection includes unpublished as well as published works, and applies even if the work does not have a copyright notice attached to it.

In general, copyright law gives authors of “original works of authorship” the sole right to do the following, and to authorize others to do the following:

  • reproduce their work,
  • prepare derivative works based on their work,
  • distribute copies of their work, and
  • perform or display their work publicly.

Copyright protection comes into effect upon creation of the work, and with most works, the term of copyright protection (extended in 1998 with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act), covers the life of the author plus 70 years. Works made for hire (work created as a part of employment and owned by the employer) are protected 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. While these rights are exclusive, there are allowances in copyright protection under the fair use statute, giving educators, as well as journalists and other researchers the ability to use copyrighted material in criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research without obtaining permission or paying royalties for its use.