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About this guide

This guide will help you understand the complex world of copyright, and provide resources to help you avoid violating the intellectual property rights of others.

If you have questions about the content of this guide, just click on the Research Help tab to contact a librarian. However, librarians are not copyright lawyers and cannot provide legal advice.

Plagiarism vs. Copyright Infringement

Plagiarism is:

"the action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one's own; literary theft." - OED

Copyright infringement is:

"the act of violating any of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights granted by the federal Copyright Act." - Purdue Libraries

Just citing a source does not protect you from copyright infringement. That is why there is the Fair Use doctrine and other methods like Creative Commons to help you use information/media/etc. without breaking copyright.

Copyright Basics

The purpose of copyright law is to give protection, for a limited time, to authors of original works-both published and unpublished. These works include literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. Copyright law is also designed to promote science and the arts by facilitating the dissemination of knowledge.  

The exclusive rights of a copyright owner, as outlined in the United States Code (title 17) are:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings,* to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. Sections 107 through 121 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish limitations on these rights.  One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use.”


Patent - protects the unique features of an invention

Trademark - protects a word, phrase, symbol of design, or a combination of, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

License - grants use of the work for a specified period of time, doesn't transfer ownership

Copyright encourages intellectual property.

Patents encourage innovation.

Trademarks protect a company image.

Web Sites


WARNING: Material provided in this guide is intended as a helpful resource. Nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult with legal counsel before taking an action that might constitute copyright infringement.