Copyright Law

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This document has mentioned copyright at various points throughout. Because some instances of plagiarism and self-plagiarism (e.g., redundant publication) have the potential for violating copyright law, the following section is devoted to a brief review of the concept of copyright.

Copyright law is based on Article 1, sec. 8, cl. 8 of the United States Constitution, the purpose of which is “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Once owners of an artistic (e.g., song, lyrics, films) or an intellectual work (e.g., book, article) copyright a product, they have the exclusive right to publish, reproduce, sell, distribute, or modify those products. For authors who wish to have their papers published in traditional journals, the typical arrangement is for the copyright of the author’s work to be transferred to the publisher of the journal. The journal can then reproduce and distribute the author’s work legally. An increasing number of journals now allow the author to maintain ownership of their work, but both entities sign an agreement specifying the journals’ right to publish and re-use the author’s material. In the case of “Open Access” journals (freely available to the public without expectation of payment), the author agrees to allow for the free dissemination of his/her works without prior permission.

With some exceptions, the unauthorized use of copyrighted work violates copyright law and represents copyright infringement. Exceptions to copyright infringement fall under the doctrine of “Fair Use” of copyright law and represent instances in which the activity is largely for nonprofit educational, scholarship, or research purposes (see US Copyright Office, 1996).  For example, in some situations, a student or individual researcher may make a copy of a journal article or book chapter for his/her own personal use without asking permission. Likewise, an author describing the results of a published study may take a couple of lines of data from a table from a journal article, include a citation, and reproduce it in his/her paper. The American Medical Association’s Manual of Style (Iverson, et al., 2007) provides additional examples of instances of “fair use.”

Source URL: https://ori.hhs.gov/copyright-law