Copyright Basics for the Health Sciences

Learn the basics of copyright law and the fair use guidelines from a health sciences perspective.

Definition and Overview

Copyright is a type of legal protection provided to the authors of creative works. (Copyright Basics)

The US Copyright Act lists six rights exclusive to the copyright holder:

  1. make copies or recordings of the work
  2. create new works based on the original work
  3. sell, rent, lease, lend, or give away copies or recordings of the work
  4. publicly perform the work
  5. publicly display the work, including still images from movies or other audiovisual works and
  6. in the case of music or other sound recordings, perform the work through a digital audio transmission, such as playing it on a radio station
    (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 106)

Authors are not required to register their works or use the © symbol in order to hold their exclusive rights. In addition, authors can agree to transfer these rights to someone else, such as a publisher, who will sell copies of the work. (Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford University Libraries) They may also license all or a portion of their rights for various lengths of times and to various people or entities.

In the United States, copyright law has its foundation in the US Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 states:

The Congress shall have 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 writing and discoveries.

The 1976 Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) established copyright law in the US as we know it today. From 1976 to October 2007, there have been fifty-nine amendments to the law. (U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Law)

UNC Copyright Policy

Except as allowed by law, it is a violation of [UNC Copyright Policy] and law for University faculty, staff, or students to reproduce, distribute, display publicly, perform, digitally transmit (in the case of sound recordings), or prepare derivative works based upon a copyrighted work without permission of the copyright owner.

(Copyright Policy of the University of North Carolina IV.A [PDF])

What Copyright Covers

Copyright law covers "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device" (Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 102).

Types of original works include literature, music, drama, computer programs, visual art, and many other forms of expression.

Copyright protection does not extend to ideas, facts, or procedures.

By their definition in the U.S. Constitution, copyright terms are limited. How long a work's copyright term lasts depends on when the work was published.  Here are some general rules for textual works published in the U.S.

  • works published in the U.S. before 1923: copyright has expired
  • works published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1977 with copyright notice: copyright lasts for 95 years after date of publication
  • works created between 1923 and 1977 but not published: copyright lasts for 70 years after the life of the author
  • works created or published in the U.S. after 1977: copyright lasts for 70 years after the life of the author
  • works published anonymously in the U.S. or works for hire in the U.S. after 1977: copyright lasts for 95-120 years

For more detail, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Copyright also does not cover works in the public domain. These include:

  • works whose copyright has expired
  • works published in the U.S. before 1989 without copyright notice
  • works created by US federal government employees as part of their employment (However, some works might be done by an independent contractor or include copyrighted material, so always check the copyright information carefully.)

Works in the public domain can be used freely.

Examples of Protected and Unprotected Works

The following works are all protected by copyright law:

  • a poster created for a conference in 2006
  • a presentation at a conference last month
  • an image created for a textbook in 1990
  • a paper written for a Fall 2005 class and never published

However, the following works are not protected by copyright law:

  • an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1902 (too old)
  • an article in a CDC publication that was published in 1996 (government document)
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