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Program Teachers

Copyright and Primary Sources

If you can see or hear the materials on the Library of Congress website, you may view or listen to them on the site. We are making them available to you for that very purpose.

If you want to use or reuse the materials beyond our website, though, you need to be aware of copyright and other rights restrictions. (Just because we’ve put a work online doesn’t mean that you can freely reuse it.) You need to decide for yourself whether the way you plan to use the materials is allowed under copyright law.

For a few questions that will help you decide, visit this section of the Library’s Understanding Copyright page:

For more about copyright, including how to register a copyright claim, explore Engage Your Creativity from the U.S. Copyright Office.

FAQs for Students about Copyright and Creativity

  • Does copyright protect my ideas? Actually, copyright law does not protect your idea. Instead, copyright protects the tangible expression of your idea or system. Let's say you come up with a new skateboard jumping technique, and you write a book about the trick. The copyright of your book will prevent other people from publishing the text and illustrations describing the technique. But it will not give you any rights to prevent others from using your new jump.
  • I found old photos in my garage. Do I own the copyright? Probably not. You can register copyright in the pictures only if you own the rights to the work, for example, by will or by inheritance. Copyright is the right of the creator of the work or the creator's heirs, not of the person who found or possesses the photos.
  • If it's on the Internet can I use it? Copyright protects text and pictures on websites just like books, CDs, DVDs, and works in other media are protected. You might not see a copyright notice on a website, but that doesn't mean you're free to copy what you see or hear.
  • Is it ok to use up to 5% of someone else's work? Under certain circumstances, "fair use" allows you to use parts of someone else's work. There's no magic formula, though. Scholarly criticism, teaching, and news reporting may be valid reasons for reproducing a copyrighted work. A number of other factors also need to be considered. (See Fair Use). When in doubt, it's always a good idea to ask the copyright owner for permission first.
  • Can anyone ever use my work without my permission? It's always best for people to ask your permission first, but under certain circumstances (See Fair Use), it's ok for other people to use parts of your work. Usually, parody, scholarly criticism, teaching, and news reporting may be valid reasons for using a small portion of your work.
  • Do I have to register my copyright to secure protection? Copyright protection actually begins at the moment the work is created on paper, recorded, or otherwise made permanent. However, for certain types of works, registration may be a good idea because you get certain additional benefits. Registration establishes a public record, which is necessary if you need to sue someone in court for infringement. If you win your case, you may also be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees.