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Copyright for Instructors: Legal Rights and Licenses

This guide provides information about copyright for University instructors.

Please note!

The information presented in this guide is for informational purposes only and should NOT be construed as legal advice.  If you are looking for legal advice, please contact the University of Maine Office of General Counsel.

Copyright and Other Legal Licenses and Designations

Although copyright is the most well-known legal right a creator has in his or her work, it is not the only possibility.  Copyright is a highly restricted right, reserving only a small number of limited uses as exceptions.  For creators interested in having others reuse, reimagine, and remix their creative works, there are several potential alternatives to copyright.  Here, then, are some of the potential legal rights, licenses, and designations a creator can have or can choose to have in their work:

  • Copyright: a form of legal protection for creators of original works that are "fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed" (17 USC §102).  Under copyright, the creator or copyright holder of the work has the exclusive right (with limited exceptions) to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute or sell the copyrighted work, and to perform or display the copyrighted work publicly (17 USC §106).  Copyright was created primarily to allow creators to receive compensation for their creative works, and to prevent infringers from pirating and profit from those pirated copyrighted works.  Copyright is described in full in Title 17 of the United States Code.
  • Creative Commons:  a type of licensing designed to allow creators of copyrighted works to retain their copyright but to allow others more flexibility in their use of the licensed work than would be available under copyright law alone.  There are six different types of Creative Commons licenses (here you can find descriptions of individual Creative Commons license types), ranging from more restrictive to less restrictive, but many of them allow creative works to be shared and remixed by non-creators, as long as the creator of the original work is credited.
  • Public Domain:  a designation meaning that copyright law no longer applies to a work, either because the work's copyright has expired or has been waived.  Works in the public domain may be used and distributed freely without the permission of the creator or copyright owner.  Fixed creative works are assumed to be copyrighted unless the creator or copyright holder explicitly waives their copyright.  Laws involving the expiration of copyright are complex, particularly because the duration of copyright has become longer over time, meaning that different works can enter into the public domain at different times, even if they were created in the same year.  The United States Copyright Office has more information about the duration of copyright.

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