RIT Libraries can provide information and research assistance on the topics of copyright and fair use. Questions about legal advice and legal recommendations should be directed to RIT’s Office of Legal Affairs.

Copyright is a legal set of rights that is designed to protect the intellectual property of content creators (e.g. authors, artists, musicians, programmers) for works that exist in a fixed, tangible medium of expression. In other words, copyright protects the things that people create. Nowadays, a work does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected by copyright – once an original work exists in a fixed, tangible state the creator is entitled to copyright protection regardless of whether or not the work is registered with the copyright office or a copyright notice is posted on the work.

Works of "authorship" under copyright law include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Why Does Copyright Matter? 

The U.S. Constitution states that Congress has the power 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" (U.S. Const. art. I, §8). Copyright law is codified in Title 17 of the U.S. Code (per the Copyright Act of 1976). 

Copyright is designed to encourage creativity, as well as the development and implementation of new ideas and research. At the same time it is not meant to hinder progress of future works and therefore contains term limitations and exclusions such as fair use. 

Intellectual Property Rights at RIT

Intellectual property can take many forms, but it typically refers to works or inventions that can be copyrighted, patented, or trademarked. RIT’s Intellectual Property Policy (C03.0) provides detailed information on the intellectual property rights of students, faculty, and the university as a whole – please consult the full policy for exact details and official information.

For the most part, students retain the intellectual property rights to the work they create while at RIT unless there is a formal agreement or the project is internally or externally funded (e.g. grant funded research). Students can be asked to grant rights or ownership to intellectual property for class projects; however, the student also has the option to decline this request and be given an alternate assignment without penalty.

RIT does require the publication of dissertations and theses "in the interests of open dissemination of research results and scholarship," but an embargo can be granted to protect intellectual property rights by the Dean of Graduate Education for up to one year under certain conditions.

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

Copyright is a legal doctrine that grants exclusive rights to the creator of works. Plagiarism is taking credit for work done by someone other than yourself (or in the case of self-plagiarism, done for a previous assignment), however it is not legally coded. You cannot be taken to court for plagiarizing, unless it is also a copyright infringement. However, many institutions, RIT included, have policies against plagiarism. For more information about how RIT handles plagiarism, see the Student Academic Integrity Policy

Fair Use

Fair Use is a legal doctrine that allows for limited use of copyright-protected materials without first obtaining permission from the copyright owner, or paying licensing fees,such as for the purposes of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research."

Whether or not a use counts as "fair" is determined on a case by case basis by four factors: 

  1. The purpose and character of one’s  use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market.

When considering these four factors, keep in mind that not all of them have to weigh in favor of Fair Use in order for it to be considered fair. For example, while "commercial" uses weigh against fair use, there are many cases in which a commercial use was found to be fair. Additionally, the factors are not all weighed equally. Recent cases have shown that courts tend to weigh the first factor heavier than the others. For more information about conducting a Fair Use analysis, you can go through the Fair Use Analysis form.

You should always document your Fair Use analyses, however the only way to know for sure whether or not your use is fair is for it to be resolved in court.