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Intellectual Property and Copyright

This section of the OTL LibGuide  was copied from FHWA Pooled Fund Study TPF-5(237) led by Ms. Laura Wilt, Librarian, at the Oregon DOT library. The complete LibGuide is available at

Intellectual property refers to works originating from the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, and unique designs.  The law provides protection for these works, allowing the creators to benefit from their products.  Copyright is one such set of protections - along with patents and trademarks - and in the US, copyright is controlled by the US Copyright Office. Original works produced through some creative effort on the part of the author are eligible for copyright protection, which limits others from using and copying the work without the author's permission.  Since 1989, authors have not been required to identify their copyright with a symbol, and because of convoluted and confusing copyright laws, we must consider that, unless otherwise stated, anything produced after 1923 is covered by copyright. 

There have been some allowances made for limited use under certain circumstances, however, and some works are not covered by copyright at all, as discussed in the boxes below.

Remember that it is the tangible, created work that is protected by copyright, not the ideas and facts behind it. Doing research, and presenting information from that research in one's own words does not constitute a breach of copyright.

Copyright Basics

Public Domain

Items in the public domain have no patent or copyright intellectual property protection. The work is owned by the public, and anyone can use public domain work without restrictions and without obtaining permission from the creator.  It can be altered and used without attribution.  These works include items for which copyright protection has expired, items donated to the public domain by the creator, or items originating with the federal government. While federal publications are considered to be in the public domain. However, be aware contractors are sometimes able to insert restrictions to some or all of the content on materials they produce for federal agencies, depending on their contractual agreements.

State publications are usually distributed freely, but many states place some degree of copyright or creative commons licensing on their publications.  For instance, states often claim copyright on their state highway maps to restrict private companies from repackaging the maps to sell for a profit.  And, as with federal publications, contractors sometimes place restrictions on material they produce for state agencies.

Bottom line - do not assume a work is in the public domain simply because it was produced through a public agency.  Make sure to check for restrictions on usage and distribution.

Open Access

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) defines Open Access as:

"the free, immediate, availability on the public Internet of those works which scholars give to the world without expectation of payment – permitting any user to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full text of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software or use them for any other lawful purpose"

So Open Access deals with (usually) scholarly articles or journals that give the reader unrestricted access. The author retains copyright and can place some limitations, but at the very least, the public is free to download, print, link to, and use these materials.

For more information on Open Access:

Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine

Fair Use

Fair use provisions allow limited usage of copyrighted materials under certain circumstances. There are four basic criteria for establishing eligibility for fair use, although the guidelines can be rather vague.

  • Purpose and character of use: is this for commercial or non-profit educational use? These laws were developed for non-profit uses, primarily to benefit educators, libraries and researchers; commercial uses generally do not fall under fair use criteria
  • Nature of copyrighted material: factual work is more likely to fall under the fair use umbrella than fictional ones. Also, published work is more likely to qualify than non-published, since the author should have the right to determine how and when material is introduced to the public.
  • Amount of portion taken/used: amount in length as well as amount of substance - how much of the "meat" of the work has been copied?
  • Effect on future market or value: would copying a portion of the work significantly impact the creator's ability to market the work in the future?

Except for certain provisions for classroom use, fair use guidelines allow for one copy for one use. Some materials cannot be reproduced, including most standards and specifications (ASTM, ANSI, ISO, etc). Some materials expressly forbid the reproduction of any portions of the work without permission, and the user must respect the author's right to impose restrictions.