Copyright Law: Making Personal Copies

By Louis Kroeck

Copyright law does not contain any caveat that allows unauthorized parties to make personal copies of copyrighted products. However, under the doctrine of "fair use," individuals may be permitted to make backup copies or archival copies of some materials as long as certain conditions are met. Creating a copy of a copyrighted work for your own ease of use is likely to be considered copyright infringement. But if you are making a copy so that you may use a copyrighted product in case the original is stolen, damaged or destroyed, your conduct may fall within the doctrine of fair use.

Copyright Infringement

Generally, copyright infringement occurs when an unauthorized party reproduces, distributes, performs, publicly displays, or makes a derivative work from a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright owner. Although the practice commonly occurs, making a copy of a protected work for a friend or for personal ease of access is prohibited and may subject the person making copies to personal liability. Additionally, making a personal copy of copyrighted material so that you can use it in a different manner may be prohibited under copyright law.

Fair Use

Within copyright law there is a doctrine of law known as fair use. Although fair use does not actually give permission to make copies of a work or otherwise use a work without consent, the doctrine provides a defense to copyright infringement. The factors considered when applying the doctrine of fair use include: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the work used, and the effect the use has upon the market for the copyrighted work.

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Fair Use for Educators

Educators and librarians have more leeway when making copies of copyrighted material, as educational use is generally considered fair use in most circumstances. Educators generally are not allowed to copy for the purpose of avoiding purchasing books from publishers or to copy the same items from term to term. However, educators are generally permitted to make copies of short articles or pages from a book for the purpose of teaching a class. Additionally, librarians are permitted to make archival copies of certain works in case the original work is damaged, degraded, lost or stolen.


Copyright law permits you to make one copy of your computer software for the purpose of archiving the software in case it is damaged or lost. In order to make a copy, you must own a valid copy of the software and must destroy or transfer your backup copy if you ever decide to sell, transfer or give away your original valid copy. It is not legal to sell a backup copy of software unless you are selling it along with the original.

CDs and DVDs

In addition to making a backup copy of software, it is legal to make a backup copy of a CD or DVD so that you can continue to enjoy the copyrighted material if your original copy fails. It is illegal to make copies of CDs or DVDs if you intend to distribute them to third parties, even by giving them away. Additionally, in some instances it may be unlawful to circumvent anti-piracy technology in order to make a backup copy of a CD or DVD.

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Most Frequent Copyright Violations

Copyright law protects original works of authorship by providing the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on the right to use and profit from the work. A copyright violation occurs when someone else uses or profits from a copyrighted work without the authorization of the copyright holder. The most frequent copyright violations are related to computer and digital technology.

Can We Copy & Paste Copyrighted Things?

The owner of a copyright has certain rights that are protected by civil and criminal law. For the owner to civilly enforce those rights in federal court, the copyright must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before the suit is brought. Criminal copyright infringement is prosecuted by the government while a civil suit is brought by the copyright owner.

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Copyright laws prohibit unauthorized copying or reproduction of original audiovisual works. In today’s digital world, videos exist not only in a physical form, but also in electronic formats online. Both viewers and creators of videos should have a basic understanding of copyright laws set out in Title 17 of the United States Code. Breach of copyright can lead to substantial fines.

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