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Guide to copyright for A&T communities

Specifically Student Concerns

What is the difference between copyright and plagiarism?

 Both issues involve using someone else's work, but they are actually quite different.

Plagiarism involves using someone else's words, images, ideas, etc. without giving them credit. Plagiarism is not illegal, though it is taken very seriously by educational institutions, including NC A&T, and there are academic penalties. 

Copyright involves using someone else's work without permission and without a specific legal exemption such as fair use. Although it is a good idea to give credit to the copyright holder, that alone will not protect you from an infringement complaint. Copyright is a part of federal law and anyone found guilty of copyright infringement may be subject to legal penalties. 


Should I register my thesis or dissertation with the U.S. Copyright Office?

 It depends. Remember that copyright law protects an original work automatically as soon as it is fixed it in a tangible form (saved to a file, printed, etc.). Because of this, you enjoy copyright protection without any need for formalities such as copyright registration.

Copyright registration can be advantageous in some cases. If you think it is likely that others may infringe on your work and you wish to have the right to sue for damages, it is a good idea to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. If your work is registered, it is much more difficult for someone else to make a claim that they were not able to determine that the work was copyrighted.

For more information about registering your copyright, see: We also recommend  the guide, Copyright Law & Your Dissertation: New Media, New Rights, and Your Dissertation by law professor and copyright expert Kenneth Crews:


I am using someone else's model in my dissertation. Do I have to get permission to do this or is it a fair use?

You should conduct the four-factor test of your specific use. This guide from ProQuest, Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis provides examples of the types of materials for which it is generally expected for you to obtain permission before using in your dissertation: .

For additional information and more in-depth analysis, please consult the guide, Copyright Law & Your Dissertation: New Media, New Rights, and Your Dissertation by law professor and copyright expert Kenneth Crews. This guide is available on the UMI site:


My friends and I rent and watch movies together. Why would you need permission for something like that?

You may not need permission, depending on the circumstances. A private showing between friends and family members would generally not require any special permission. In addition, copyright law permits showing movies in a face-to-face classroom setting when the audience is limited to the students registered for that class.

Things change when the circumstances change, if you are showing movies in a public place or are holding a public screening (for example, for a student group or club). The "right to perform a work publicly" is an exclusive right that copyright law grants to copyright holders, so you would typically need to obtain performance rights for this type of movie screening. It does not matter if you charge admission or not.

Any individual or group sponsoring a public performance should either obtain the performance rights or the written approval of the copyright holder. Bluford Library films are not purchased with performance rights.   

For information on how to obtain performance rights, see the excellent guide from Williams College: 


I like to make films and I have posted some online. I have incorporated other sources like background music, but I feel that the overall film is my own work. It looks like everyone else on YouTube is doing this too. 

This is a good question...and a complicated area of the law.

Sites such as YouTube include many examples of video compilations or mashups that incorporate copyrighted work. When considering whether these are infringements or works that are protected by fair use, it is a good idea to apply a fair use analysis. Are you using copyrighted materials to create a work of commentary or criticism? Are you creating a parody? These are examples of uses that are protected as a fair use under copyright law. If you are posting someone else's movies or videos without adding anything, this is much more likely to be considered an infringement. For a thorough and thoughtful discussion of copyright, fair use, and online video, we recommend the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video that is available through the Center for Social Media at American University:

You are correct that there are many videos with copyrighted material posted on sites such as YouTube. And, of course these online video sites frequently receive infringement complaints from copyright holders. YouTube's policies with regards to infringement allegations are available on their site and typically involve removing the material and notifying the account-holder of the complaint. YouTube also has a procedure for  filing a counter-notification if you want to make a case that your use was not a infringement. See for more information.