Copyright is a bundle of several rights that belong to the author or creator of an original work, so long as it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression" (written down, recorded, saved to an electronic file, etc.). The intent of these laws is to protect the creator's intellectual property for a period of time (not forever). Those rights are grounded in the U.S. Constitution and subsequent laws, and include the rights to:
It does NOT cover ideas, systems, or methods of operation (although it may cover specific forms that are used to express those). For example, the facts in an infographic cannot be copyrighted -- but the wording of the text and the image used to present them are protected.
There are two sides to copy rights (copyright):
Federal copyright law (17 U.S.C. 107) includes exemption for cases that could be considered fair use, which includes scholarship, teaching, and research. For the most part, educators rely on those Fair Use provisions to be able to use course reserves and distribute readings in classroom settings.
However, that does not mean that any use in an educational setting is "fair use". Over the years the courts have narrowed the scope of that vaguely-worded phrase. There is a widely accepted 4-factor test used determine whether it's likely that distributing print materials to students would be considered acceptable, should the copyright owner decide to challenge that use.
When it comes to using digital materials in online education, the TEACH Act of 2002 tried to give guidance to faculty and to schools. However, changes in technology and the limitations of that law's specific requirements might not be well-suited to online education in the 2020 pandemic; faculty may prefer to operate under a mix of Fair Use provisions and alternatives to Fair Use instead.
See the section of this guide on Fair Use for more details.
Originally the U.S. Constitution set copyrights to expire after a fixed period of time. Since then, laws have extended the initial time period and allowed copyrights to be renewed in some circumstances - but they don't extend forever.
As of 2020, works published before 1925 no longer have copyright (also called "in the public domain"). Later works might or might not be in the public domain, too - for example, many federal U.S. government documents, and speeches or reports by federal U.S. government employees, are in the public domain, no matter how recent. See the section of this guide on Public Domain for more details.
Responses to copyright infringement range from a "cease and desist" letter or low grades to disciplinary action or lawsuit.
In response to complaints about illegal file sharing through Napster and other peer-to-peer networks, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires colleges and universities to take steps against anyone using the school's networks or computers for unauthorized downloading or distributing files.