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How to Understand Copyright




The purpose of this information is to respond to questions that are commonly asked by faculty, staff, and students at Trident Technical College. While Trident Technical College makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of this information, it is not offered as counsel or legal advice. Please consult an attorney, as appropriate, for advice concerning specific situations.

1. What works are not protected by copyright?

  • Works authored by the U.S. Government
  • Works first published before 1923
  • Works that contain an express notice stating that the work is in the public domain
  • Works initially published prior to March 1, 1989, that do not include a copyright notice

2. If a work does not include a copyright notice, does that mean it is not copyrighted and is available for use without permission?

No.  Treat all works as copyrighted works, even those without copyright notices, unless they are included on the list of non-copyrighted works in Question #1.

For example, works created after March 1, 1989, are not required to include a copyright notice in order to have copyright protection; therefore, assume these works created after March 1, 1989, are copyrighted unless the work includes an express notice stating that the work is in the public

3. Can I use a copyrighted work without seeking the copyright owner’s permission?

The use of any copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright owner is restricted to occasions when:

The proposed use of the work is covered by the TEACH Act

The proposed use of the work is a Fair Use

If you are unsure whether the proposed use of a copyrighted work falls within the circumstances described above, seek legal advice or seek permission from the owner of the copyright. Failure to do so may result in being held personally liable for copyright infringement and may result in your facing civil and criminal penalties.

4. How do I seek permission to use a copyrighted work?

These resources may help you seek copyright permission on various types of works.


Motion Picture Licensing Corporation


Artists Rights Society


ASCAP (American Society of Composers,    Authors and Publishers)

BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated)

SESAC (Society of European Authors and        Composers)


Copyright Clearance Center


Permission can also be obtained directly from the copyright owner. Copyright permission should be in writing and should state the scope of permissible use. Verify that the person or entity who grants copyright permission is authorized to do so.

Sample Permission Letters

5.  What if I cannot locate the copyright owner or the copyright owner does not respond to my request?

If you cannot locate the copyright owner or the owner does not respond to your request, this is not a defense to a copyright infringement lawsuit.  Before making the decision to use the materials in question without copyright permission, consult an attorney to assist you in weighing the risks.

6. What are the penalties for copyright infringements?

The violator of a copyright (an infringer) may face civil penalties. If the violation is willful, the infringer may also face criminal penalties.

7. How can I determine whether my proposed use of copyrighted materials meets the requirements of the Fair Use Doctrine?

Use a Fair Use checklist.

If you are not sure whether your proposed use meets the requirements of the Fair Use Doctrine, then you must either obtain permission from the copyright owner or seek legal advice.

8. Can I copy VHS tapes to DVD format?

A self-authored tape that has not been published commercially may be converted into other digital formats, such as DVD, in single or multiple copies.

To convert materials created and copyrighted by TTC, obtain permission to convert formats from the TTC department that produced the resource.

VHS tapes that were commercially produced or produced by any entity other than TTC may not be converted to DVD format without written permission from the copyright holder. In most cases, it is advisable to simply purchase the content in DVD format.

The absence of a copyright notice on a work does not necessarily mean a work is in the public domain.  A commercially produced VHS tape, authored by others, is presumed to be copyrighted.  There are legal limitations to what can be done with the tape, even under educational fair use guidelines.