Copyright infringement is closely related to plagiarism, but it is a federal crime (U.S. Copyright Act 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810). Copyright laws protect the rights of creators of any literary, graphic, musical, artistic, or electronic form. (Facts and ideas are not covered, only the expression of those facts or ideas fixed in a tangible form—including on the Internet.) The laws, in effect, keep the right to copy those forms in the hands of the people who created them or own them.

The law allows fair use of works (copying without permission) for some purposes: educational (but not every situation) and journalism (criticism, news, comment), for example. Parody of copyrighted materials is covered as free speech.

The fair use provision protects you, as a student, when you make a photocopy of an article from a magazine for a paper you are writing. The copy you made is for research purposes; therefore, you do not need permission from the copyright owner.

How is fair use determined? In order to determine whether use of a copyrighted work is fair, the following factors must be considered:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. (This is considered to be the most important factor.)

When dealing with this issue, it is important to remember that copyright, unlike trademarks and patents, is an unregistered right.  To have copyright, a creator does not need to fill out an application or pay a fee. Copyright goes into effect immediately upon the work being fixed in a tangible medium, such as on paper, canvas, DVD, or the Web. Ideas are not copyrighted unless they are written or recorded in some way. (However, you should give credit for ideas to avoid plagiarism.)

Why does it matter that I have downloaded music without paying for it?