Week 1 (3/18-3/22) - Copyright & the Public Domain

Week 1 - Copyright Law and the Public Domain

This week, you will:

  • Introduce yourself to your classmates and teammates
  • Understand what copyright is; and
  • What kinds of works copyright does not cover.

Much of this course will be spent learning about the ways in which you, as educators, can use copyrighted works as part of your teaching endeavors without infringing copyright. But first it is important to note that there are many works that may be freely used because they are not protected by copyright at all. This week, you will learn about the history and origins of copyright law, which works are protected by copyright law, and which works are in the public domain.

Note: In addition to this week's assigned readings, it is important that you use this week to introduce yourself to your fellow group members, and begin to get accustomed to communicating and collaborating online. See the Getting Started & Group Assignments pages for more information and suggestions for getting started with online collaboration.

Office Hours: USUALLY Wednesday, 10am - noon (US - Eastern Standard Time) but not this week.

This week, Laura's office hours will be Tuesday, 9pm - 11pm (US - Eastern Standard Time).


Copyright law governs the use only of certain works, only for a limited period of time. The public domain is the name given to the set of works that are not governed by copyright law. This might be for any of several reasons:

  • because they are not the sort of work or information that is governed by copyright;
  • because they are works of the US government;
  • because they are no longer covered by the limited term (that is, period of time) of copyright;
  • because their creators did not comply with various formal requirements in the past; or
  • because their creators deliberately donated to the public the rights that they might have asserted.

The public domain functions as a pool of creative material from which anyone may draw. It provides authors the raw materials from which the next generation of books, movies, songs, and knowledge can be built. As the 14th century English poet Chaucer (whose work is now in the public domain) wrote, "For out of the old fields, as men say, Comes all this new corn, from year to year; And out of old books, in good faith, Comes all this new science that men learn."

(Some material drawn from the Berkman Center's Copyright For Librarians, available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.)

Reading Assignment:

Additional Reading and Resources (optional):

Discussion Questions:

These are questions provided for your understanding, to be discussed with your group and with the course facilitators in office hours. Answers to these questions do not have to be submitted and will not be part of your grade.

(1) What is the idea/expression distinction? Why is it important?

(2) How would you go about determining whether or not each of the following resources are in the public domain? (What questions would you ask about the work and its creator? What additional information would you need to know?)

  • A book from the library
  • A photo you found on the Internet
  • A federal court decision


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