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Copyright Basics

Five Facts about U.S. Copyright Law 

Before you dig into the details of this page please watch this short 2 minute video (below) which will give you a basic understanding of five key facts of U.S. Copyright Law. 

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that allows authors and other creators to control their originalcreative work. The work must also be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" - written on a piece of paper, saved on a computer hard drive, or recorded on an audio or video tape. Copyright occurs automatically at the creation of a new work. In general, copyright holders have the exclusive right to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work in whole or in part, such as:
    • Posting your vacation photos online, such as on Flickr;
    • Emailing a PDF of a paper you wrote to colleagues and friends;
  • Prepare derivative works, such as:
    • Writing translations, dramatizations, sequels, film adaptations of books, musical arrangements;
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, gift, rental, or loan, such as:
    • Using a print-on-demand service for a book you wrote and selling the copies on Amazon;
    • Taking photographs and selling copies of them at an artists' exhibit;
  • Publicly perform the work, such as:
    • Performing a composition of a musical piece you wrote;
    • Sharing the recorded performance of your music online through YouTube or another platform;
  • Publicly display the work, such as:
    • Hanging a painting on a wall in a public space, such as at a restaurant;
    • Posting a digital photograph on a blog or website.

Need more clarification? Watch this short video about the purpose of copyright protection and the exclusive rights of copyright holders:

Copyright Protection

Copyright Protects literature, drama, music, art, imagery, graphic design, sculpture, architecture, choreography, pantomime, motion pictures, and sound recordings




What's protected by copyright? 

Original or creative expressions fixed in a tangible medium, such as:

  • Books
  • Scholarly articles
  • Plays
  • Films
  • Music recordings
  • Photographs
  • Paintings
  • Buildings
  • Architectural designs
  • Photographs
  • Many, many more!
Copyright protection term lengths

Current (works created on or after 1978)

  • Life of the author plus 70 years
    • If joint authorship, the term applies to the last surviving author.
  • However, if the work is anonymous, pseudonymous, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for either 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is longer.

Works created before 1979 can have various copyright term lengths. The Digital Copyright Slider can be used to help define how long the protection of an item may last.


More information from the U.S. Copyright Office: 

What is not protected by copyright?

Copyright does not protect ideas, facts, concepts, systems, methods, principles, discoveries, names, titles, or short phrases





Copyright protects works that are:
  • Literary
  • Musical
  • Artistic
  • Dramatic
  • Architectural 
Copyright does not protect:
  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Systems
  • Methods of operation
  • Names, titles, phrases

However, copyright may protect the way these facts, ideas, and systems are expressed, such as: 

  • A scholarly article that expresses certain concepts and ideas
  • An encyclopedia that expresses facts
  • A book that expresses a method of operation 
  • A magazine that expresses a new discovery

Though copyright does not protect names, titles, and phrases, trademark law may protect them. 

More information:

Notice & Registration

Copyright is Automatic, no need to register or include the copyright notice symbol




Copyright Notice

What to know: 

  • It's optional, not required.
  • It's beneficial, because:
    • It informs the public of your copyright.
    • It lets the public know who to contact for permissions.
  • Example: © Jane Doe 2016
  • More information about copyright notice
Copyright Registration

What to know:

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Who owns copyright?

The creator usually is the initial copyright holder. If two or more people jointly create a work, they are joint holders of the copyright, with equal rights. When authors publish, sometimes they sign their copyright over to the publishers.

If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement.

Copyright Holders at K-State

As a student, you hold the copyright in your academic works. In addition, K-State holds a nonexclusive, royalty free license to mark on, modify, and retain your academic works (meaning that K-State instructors may markup, modify, and keep your academic works and writings as part of the instructional activities.)

If a work is created as a part of a person's employment, that work is a "work for hire" and the copyright belongs to the employer, unless the employer explicitly grants rights to the employee in a signed agreement. If the creator is hired as a contractor, then the creator (rather than the company/employer) may be the copyright holder. Please visit Circular 9: Works Made for Hire from the U.S. Copyright Office for more information on "work for hire."

If you are a student employee, you may or may not hold the copyright to the works you create while under the employment of K-State.

Please see the chart below for more clarification on copyright holders at K-State. For further explanation, please read Section I of K-State's Intellectual Property Policy.

Why/how did you create the work?Who holds the copyright?Exceptions

As part of the normal course of your employment at K-State

(e.g. a student worker creating a poster for a K-State event)


The copyright may be held by you if:

  • there is a specific agreement in writing stating the copyright transfer

As a K-State employee using substantial institutional resources when creating the work

(e.g. a Graduate Teaching Assistant uses software licensed to K-State to create teaching materials)


"Substantial use" is defined as receiving staff, salary, or material support beyond that normally provided to the creators at K-State.

K-State owns the copyright to the specific materials but not to the intellectual content of the courseware.

In the course of your employment for scholarly or artistic means 

(e.g. a Graduate Research Assistant taking photos for a research project under the direction of a faculty member)

Scholarly and artistic works can include "textbooks, scholarly monographs, trade publications, maps, charts, articles in popular magazines and newspapers, novels, nonfiction works, supporting materials, artistic works, syllabi, lecture notes, and like works" (University Handbook, Appendix R: Intellectual Property Policy and Institutional Procedures, Section I.A.).


The copyright may not be held by you if:

  • you used substantial institutional resources (see above) or 
  • there is a specific agreement in writing stating the copyright transfer

As a student as part of a course at K-State

(e.g. your academic works)

YouThe copyright will always be held by you, but K-State holds a nonexclusive, royalty-free license to mark on, modify, and retain your academic works.

Reusing Content 

Guidelines for Analyzing Any Copyright Problem

Can I Use It? Detailed Guide - PDF


Step-by-step, follow the guidelines below or use the infographic (left) when reusing content.

  1. Is the work protected by copyright?
  2. Is there a license that covers my use?
  3. Is there an exception in the law that allows for my reuse?
  4. Do I need permission?

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Plagiarism versus Copyright Infringement

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Plagiarism is an ethical issue and a violation of university policy. 

  • University Handbook, Appendix F: Academic conduct, academic honesty, and honor system constitution

    • This policy (specifically Section II-A) outlines definitions of plagiarism and how to avoid it.

    • Committing plagiarism can lead to failure of a course or expulsion from the university (in extreme cases). 
  • Student Tips
    • The Honor and Integrity System provides excellent tips, strategies, and resources for avoiding plagiarism.
    • The most common type of plagiarism at K-State is unauthorized collaboration, which means that two or more students complete an assignment together when they were supposed to complete the work on their own. Talk to your professor if you are unsure about collaborations on an assignment.
  • Student Code of Conduct
    • "Section A-21 states that "any illegal or unauthorized taking, selling, or distribution of class notes" to be considered misconduct "in which disciplinary sanctions will be imposed."
  • Examples of Plagiarism from TurnItIn.com
    • This guide gives examples of the 10 most common types of plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism.org Student Materials
    • Excellent resource for understanding the basics of avoiding plagiarism and using proper citations and references. 
  • TurnItIn.com - Preventing Plagiarism
    • This resource helps students to understand how plagiarism happens and why it is an ethical issue. 
  • Self-plagiarism
    • Yes, you can plagiarize yourself! 
    • Be sure to cite yourself when referencing another source you wrote/created. 

Copyright Infringement

Copyright Infringement is a legal concept in which an individual either does not seek permission to use a work or the use does not fall under an exception in U.S. Copyright Law (such as Fair Use). 

Public domain works (e.g. most works published before 1923), do not need citations/attribution; under U.S. Copyright Law, these works are free to use however you want. However, not citing is a form of plagiarism even though you may not be committing copyright infringement. 

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Managing Author Rights

As an author, you are encouraged to take an active role in managing your copyrights. As the original copyright holder you have the right to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, and perform and display the work publicly. However, many authors traditionally have transferred some or all of these rights to a commercial publisher in order to publish a journal article or book chapter.  Before working with a publisher, it’s important to think about any rights you may need in the future.  Read and understand the publisher’s agreement before signing. Know what rights it allows you to retain.   There are 3 basic options when dealing with publishers:

  1. Transfer all copyrights to the publisher

    This is the traditional solution, but the least desirable from the author's copyright perspective. If you decide on this option, here are some basic rights you might want to retain include:
    • Use for teaching purposes – in classroom, distance education, and lectures or seminars
    • Posting to your personal website and/or to a repository
    • Sharing with colleagues
    • Making derivative works
  2. Transfer copyright but negotiate some or all of the rights with the publisher.

    Retain specific rights you need to do your work. 
    • The Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine will help you generate a PDF form that you can attach to a journal publisher's copyright agreement to ensure that you retain certain rights.
    • The Addendum to Publication Agreement is a PDF addendum provided by SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) that allows you to retain your rights under copyright.
  3. Retain your copyright and grant specific rights to the publisher
    The Science Commons Publication Agreement allows you to specify what rights you are willing to grant to the publisher.

How do I make my work available to others?

The use of a Creative Commons license allows you can grant permission up front allowing others to use your work in ways that you specify.  

Do I need to register for a copyright?

That depends. Original works that are fixed in a tangible form are automatically copyrighted. The work does not have to be registered or published with the copyright symbol to be protected. However, you cannot sue someone for copyright infringement or claim statutory damages if your work is not registered. In general, copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of a particular copyright.

How do I register my copyright?

You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright. Registering is not difficult and can be done online. Visit the United States Copyright Office website for instructions and forms.

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Copyright Information for Graduate Students

As a graduate student, you will likely be expected to write an Electronic Thesis/Dissertation/Report (ETDR). While you may not hold copyright to all the images and figures you cite in your ETDR, you hold the copyright to your ETDR. This means you have the right to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, and perform the work

In addition, you might be reusing copyrighted content, such as images and figures, in your ETDR. While proper citation is important, you must also comply with U.S. Copyright Law when reusing content in your ETDR. Please refer to Reusing Content for more information. Also, take a look at the "Copyrightability of Tables, Charts, and Graphs" from the University of Michigan. 

If you write an ETDR, you will be expected to submit your it to the K-State Research Exchange (K-REx) when completed. Doctoral students will also be expected to deposit their dissertations in ProQuest. When you submit your ETDR, you are giving K-REx and ProQuest (if applicable) the right to host and distribute your ETDRs.

Take a few moments to read through "Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis: Ownership, Fair Use, and Your Rights and Responsibilities," which will give you a better understanding of the common scenarios involving copyright encountered by graduate students when conducting research. 

Publishing Sections or Chapters of your Electronic Thesis/Dissertation/Report in Academic Journals

Publishing before ETDR Submission

As a graduate or doctoral student, you may decide to use a chapter or section from your ETDR and publish it as a scholarly article in an online academic journal before you upload your final ETDR to K-REx. When you submit an article for publication in an academic journal, the publisher may ask you to sign over copyright during the submission process as soon as the article is accepted for publication. In this circumstance, you would no longer hold copyright of the content in that article, which means that a portion of your ETDR's copyright is now held by the publisher. You no longer have the right to reproduce and distribute copies of the article or ETDR chapter without permission from the copyright holder (the publisher), which includes depositing your ETDR into K-REx. The majority of publishers, however, are usually flexible and will allow you to deposit your ETDR into an institutional repository, such as K-REx. If you have published a section of your ETDR with an academic journal and are no longer the copyright holder, you will need to request permission from the publisher before you submit your ETDR to K-REx. 

Alternatively, if you have not yet submitted a chapter or section of your ETDR as an article to an academic journal but want to do so, you may want to retain some of your rights. In order to do this, you can attach a contract addendum before you sign your contract or choose an open access journal. Keep in mind that many publishers now use "click-through" agreements that ask you to sign over copyright during the submission process. If you wish to retain your rights:

  • Back out of the submission form and email the editor.
  • Complete a contract addendum before you email the editor or simply email the editor and ask if it is possible to retain some or all of your rights.
  • Use the Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine from Science Commons gives you four options for retaining some or all of your rights, depending on your preference. It also produces a PDF that you can attach to the publisher's contract.
  • State on the original contract that the contract is "subject to the attached addendum," or the signed contract could be accepted without the addendum. If you need assistance understanding or using contract addenda, please contact CADS at cads@k-state.edu

If the publisher requests that you not host your ETDR on K-REx due to copyright restrictions, you can request an embargo period. You are expected to discuss embargoes with your academic advisor for approval before submitting to K-REx. 

Publishing after ETDR Submission

If you have already submitted your ETDR to K-REx, and you decide to publish an article using content or sections from your ETDR, you will need to notify the publisher or journal that the content of the article is already hosted online on K-REx. The majority of publishers will not have a problem with this, but you do need to notify them of this, especially if they ask you to sign over copyright, because the publisher now has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the article and its content. 

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