What Is Copyright?

Copyright is an intellectual property right that grants creators of works in tangible media the ability to control the reproduction, publication, adaptation, exhibition, or performance of their works.  Creator(s) can transfer these rights to other individuals or organizations. Copyright law differs by country.  This webpage will address only United States copyright law.

For legal reasons, but also ethical ones, it is important to consider and respect the intellectual property rights of others as you build upon or use their work to inform your own, just as you would want other authors to do with your works.  Copyright law does not require you to cite the works you use, but doing so is always a best practice.  Including citations legitimizes your work and ensures that others can access your sources for fact checking and as part of their own scholarship.  Also, citing the works you use shows respect for the efforts of their creators, which is an important part of being a responsible scholar.  Washington and Lee University maintains a libguide with information on multiple citation styles.  Your citation should always include more than just the url to the media.

This webpage is intended to provide general information on copyright and its relationship to teaching with the visual arts.  It does not constitute legal advice.  For guidance on specific legal questions, confer with your university’s Office of General Counsel.


Public Domain

Some works are not protected by copyright because the work’s creator(s) did not meet the stipulations required by the law at that time for the work to receive copyright protection or because the work’s copyright term of protection has expired.  Such works are in the public domain and can be used freely for any purpose.  It is important to note for books and articles that out of print materials are not necessarily in the public domain.

The two main facts to remember are:

  1. Everything published before 1923 is in the public domain because the term of copyright protection has expired.
  2. All works created since 1976, both published and unpublished, receive copyright protection for the life of the author plus 70 years.  In cases of corporate authorship, they receive protection for either 95 years from publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

The Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart created by Peter B. Hirtle can help you determine if a work is in the public domain.  Use of this chart, which is hosted at the Cornell Copyright Information Center website, is governed by the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.  © 2004-13 Peter B. Hirtle. Last updated 3 January, 2016.


The TEACH Act was signed into effect by President George Bush in November of 2002.  It provides exemptions for the performance or display of copyrighted works by instructors or pupils during face-to-face teaching and distance education that occurs in real time provided through nonprofit educational institutions.  The copies performed or displayed must have been lawfully obtained.

It does not cover copyright protected class-related materials that are shared for activities occurring outside of the classroom environment, such as the completion of homework.  The College Art Association’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, which contains practical information tailored for this discipline, does support teachers invoking a fair use exemption for the use of copyrighted materials “to support formal instruction in a range of settings” and “for reference collections that support it” when the materials are used in a way that is consistent with the spirit of copyright law.  The Code lays out eight limitations teachers should consider when determining if a fair use claim is appropriate.  When possible, linking to online content is always a better option than embedding an article or piece of media directly into your course lessons, syllabi, or other course materials.

Fair Use

Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights granted by copyright law to the author(s) of creative works.  This exception grants people the right to use copyrighted materials in certain limited ways without getting permission from the copyright holder(s).

~Fair Use, Wikipedia,

If you determine a work is protected by copyright, you should assess whether or not your intended use is allowable under copyright law’s fair use exemption, which calls for a consideration of four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether it is commercial or for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole work
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the work

The Fair Use Automated Tool created by the University of Minnesota can help you conduct a fair use assessment. This tool is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. © 2010 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Other Resources

Finding and Using Media

  1. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables authors to generate licenses that grant one of six different sets of sharing and usage privileges that are easy for users to understand.  You can search CC licensed content at all of which you are free to use in accordance with the terms of the license.  All of the CC licenses require citation.
  2. Washington and Lee University’s Library maintains webpages with resources for finding images, audio, and video and information about using that media legally and ethically as well as practical considerations, such as resolution and file type.

Copyright Resources

North Carolina State University’s Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center

Creative Commons License
Copyright Considerations is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.   Questions about the content of this page should be addressed to Alston Cobourn.