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.
Yes, you do. The moment you fix your original creative work in a tangible form--finish the sculpture or drawing; record the choreographed dance; or write and save the article, novel, or play on your computer, copyright is generally considered to apply to your work, whether it is published or not. If you want to be absolutely certain of your copyright, you can register your work with the United States copyright office.
It's worth noting that copyright does NOT protect or apply to facts, ideas, data, representations of data (graphs, charts, tables), processes, systems, methods, procedures, titles, works prepared by the United States Government, constitutions and laws of state governments, or materials in the public domain. (For more about the public domain, visit our page about legal rights and licenses.)
Copyright allows the creator or copyright holder of the work (in this case, you) 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). If someone other than the work's creator or copyright holder wants to engage in these activities, generally they must obtain permission from you to do so legally. If someone engages in these activities without your permission and without any of copyright law's exceptions applying to that person's case, that person is considered to be legally infringing upon the copyright of the work, and can be subject to legal action.
Note that any use considered to be fair use is not considered to be infringement, even if the person is using your work without your permission, because fair use is one of the limited exceptions to copyright. Any use that falls into an exception specified by copyright law is, by definition, not infringement. Our fair use page has additional information about this.
If you would like to make your work openly available to the general public, you can choose to share original academic material you've created on our open access institutional repository, Digital Commons. If the work you want to share on Digital Commons is already published and you're not sure whether your agreement with the publishing company allows you to post it openly, get in touch with your subject specialist librarian. They can find out what version of your work you might be able to share in an open access setting.
If your copyrighted work is unpublished, you can potentially choose to alter the terms of your copyright to make your copyright less restrictive. This is often done through the use of Creative Commons licensing, which permits others to use, revise, or access your material as long as they give you credit for your original work. Creative Commons licensing allows you to keep your copyright interest in your work while providing more flexibility to others in how they use your work; there are six different Creative Commons licenses that provide varying levels of creator control over what a work can be used for.
If your copyrighted work is unpublished and you want to relinquish your copyright entirely, you can release your work to the public domain. This is a more drastic step, because in essence, you are waiving your right to be compensated for your work or to have any control over what others do with your work, and once you have given up your copyright in a work, you cannot get it back. To put your work in the public domain, you have to explicitly state that you are doing so; otherwise, copyright will be assumed to apply to your work.
If your copyrighted work is published, the answer to this question will depend on the contractual agreement between you and your publisher; some publishing companies do not like writers making their work more openly accessible while the publishing company is trying to sell the work or access to it. Certain rights are generally reserved to the author in a publication contract, but what those rights are varies from contract to contract.
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