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Additional copyright topics: Fair Use AnalysisAcademic IntegrityCopyright and Blackboard

Why do we have Copyright?

Copyright law rests in the Constitution. Article 1 Section 8 Clause 8 of the US Constitution states that copyright exists "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

The purpose of the law is to help encourage authors to create more works by ensuring that they’ll be able to benefit from their work.

Copyright Fundamentals

  • You cannot copyright ideas, only expression.
  • You can copyright literary works, music, videos, dances, pictures, sculptures, sound recordings, and architecture.
  • A copyright exists from the moment the work comes into being.
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Originally, a work had to be registered to receive copyright protection, but that’s no longer the case. Once a work is “fixed in a tangible medium” it gains copyright protection. What does this mean? First, it means you cannot copyright an idea. Just because someone thought first of a story about an orphaned boy learning he has magic powers and going to a wizard school, it doesn’t mean someone else can’t use that idea. Instead, it’s the expression of that idea (in this case, Harry Potter) that is protected. The moment you put pen to paper, or finger to key, or digital brush to blank white field, that expression is protected.

Let’s summarize:

Not protected:

  • Ideas
  • Facts


  • Expression

Are there advantages to registering your work? Yes. You are unable to obtain statutory damages for infringement if you haven’t registered the work. An unregistered work can only receive actual damages, and if there’s not much of a market for a work, you won’t be recovering very much.

How copyright works

  • In most cases, the copyright belongs to the author.
  • Copyright gives you the exclusive right to reproduce, create derivatives of, distribute, perform, and display the work.
  • You can trade, sell, or license away some or all of these rights.
  • Learn more about how Copyright interacts with publisher agreements on our author’s rights page.
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In a majority of cases, copyright belongs to the author of a work until they decide to give it up. A copyright is property, just like a car or a computer, and no one can just take it from you without your permission. There are several specific rights that come with copyright:

  • Reproduce the work (For example, printing multiple copies)
  • Create derivative works (For example, translating the work or making a movie of it)
  • Distribute copies of the work (For example, selling the work)
  • Perform the work in public (For example, showing a movie in a theater)
  • Display the work (For example, hanging a painting in a museum)

These rights can be traded away to others for any number of reasons. Perhaps you’ve written a book, but you don’t have the means to get the book into the hands of readers. A publisher could help you. You could give them your copyright, and in return, they give you money and a cut of their profits.

Perhaps you don’t want to give up your copyright, just some of your exclusive rights. In that case, you could license you work for a specific purpose. Imagine that you’ve written and self-distributed a story that’s really caught on and now someone wants to make it into a movie, which is a derivative work. In this situation you could license the right to make the movie to them in return for payment. The important thing to remember is that, unless it’s a work for hire, the copyright belongs to the author as soon as they create the work, and they have complete control over it.

Work for Hire

  • If you produce work through your employment, it may belong to your employer.
  • If you are contracted to produce a work, it may belong to your contractor.
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Typically, when a work is created, the copyright belongs to the author, but that’s not the case with a work for hire. Let’s say you’re really into baseball. After work, you spend hours maintaining a fan site dedicated to baseball, writing blog posts about the latest events in the sport and your thoughts on it. Of course, all that work belongs to you and you own the copyright. You’ve invested significant time and resources in the blog and the fruits of that labor belong to you. But what about a sportswriter working for a newspaper? Rather than investing her free time, she’s paid to write articles about baseball. When a work is created by an employee within the scope of their employment, the copyright often goes to the employer, and not the author. If Tony writes an article about the Washington Nationals for the Washington Post, that article probably belongs to the Washington Post, not Tony. That means the copyright and all associated rights go to the Post, leaving Tony with no rights. So Tony cannot make copies, distribute, or sell his article--only the Post may do that. Most universities, including GW, have copyright policies clearly spelled out in their faculty handbooks.

GW’s Copyright Policy

  • Scholarly work produced by faculty, librarians, and students generally belongs to the author.
  • Works created by staff and students through their employment generally belongs to the university.
  • Works that involve the substantial use of university resources generally belong to the university.
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Section 4.6 of GW’s faculty handbook briefly covers faculty's intellectual property rights. GW's detailed copyright policy can be found on the policy web page.

Generally speaking, when a faculty member, librarian, or student creates a work in pursuit of their normal scholarly activities, the copyright will belong to the author.

For staff or students who create a work as part of their employment with the university, the copyright belongs to the university. For faculty members and librarians, the university will only claim ownership of copyright if the work is a Work for Hire or was created with substantial use of university resources.

As you can see, this can all sound very confusing. Students even fall into both groups! We’ll use students to help illustrate the differences. If a student writes a research paper, that falls into “pursuit of their normal scholarly activities” and the copyright would belong to the student. However, if that student were hired to work in the library, and they were asked to write a guide on how to use the library search function, that would be “work as part of their employment” and the copyright would belong to the university.

What about faculty, though? The line between “scholarly activities” and “part of their employment” seems quite blurry since their employment involves scholarly activities. Most of what a faculty member creates will fall into the first category and thus belong to the faculty member. So the copyright in course materials created by a faculty member, or a scholarly article that a faculty member or librarian creates in the normal course of their work would belong to the author. You might say, "Wait? I thought that if something was made in the scope of someone’s work, it was considered a work for hire." Yes, this is normally the case, but the university policies change this a bit, and scholarly output by a faculty member or librarian made in the course of their regular duties will go to the author.

Can faculty members produce work for hire then? Yes, they can. If the faculty member is commissioned by the university to create a work governed by a specific agreement, then that work would be considered a work for hire. Furthermore, if a work produced by a faculty member requires “substantial use of university resources” then the university can receive the copyright.

Let’s break this down.

If a faculty member writes a scholarly article about women in politics during the 1920’s, the copyright belongs to the faculty member. If the university contracts a faculty member to write an article about the role women played in the administration of the university in the 1920’s, the copyright belongs to the university. If a faculty member creates a video lecture about women in the 1920’s and gets extensive assistance from an Instructional Designer, that’s likely considered a substantial use of university resources; in this case, the copyright could belong to the university, unless otherwise agreed to by the university.