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Copyright Glossary

Copyright Holder, Copyright Owner or Rights Holder

A rights holder or copyright owner is a person or a company who owns any one of the exclusive rights of copyright in a work. This could be the original author/creator or in some cases, such as a work for hire, the person who by reason of contract has attained the copyright to the work.

Fair Use

A tenet of U.S. copyright law that describes the circumstances under which one can sometimes make use of protected works without first getting permission or paying the rights holder. These limitations are defined in U.S law, see 17 U.S. C § 107-122.

Fair use is a set of guidelines, rather than a rule, and is evaluated on a case-by-case basis according to four non-exclusive factors. These are:

  • 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
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The Fair Use Checklist provides guidance on making an informed analysis of a proposed use of a copyrighted work to help determine if the use would weigh in favor of fair use or be an infringement. (See Fair Use & TEACH Act page for more information.)

Public Domain

Public Domain refers to works, which have never had copyright protections, or works whose protection has expired. Some examples are factual works or content, works by the U.S. Federal Governments (except for third party contract work), or works whose copyright protection has expired. Generally speaking, the date of January 1, 1923 (for published works) is the date used to determine if a work is in the Public Domain. However, there are many elements, which should be considered when determining Public Domain status. (See Cornell University Library - Copyright Information Center’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States)

Right of First Sale Doctrine

The "first sale" doctrine gives the owners of copyrighted works the rights to sell, lend, or share their copies without having to obtain permission or pay fees. The copy becomes like any piece of physical property; you’ve purchased it, you own it. You cannot make copies and sell them—the copyright owner retains those rights. But the physical book is yours. First sale has long been important for libraries, as it allows them to lend books without legal hurdles. (Jenkins, Jennifer. "Last Sale? Libraries’ Rights in the Digital Age." College & Research Libraries News, vol. 75, no. 2, 2014, pp. 69-75.)

Learn more about first sale with this guide from the American Library Association