Copyright and fair use: Frequently asked questions
What is copyright?
The owner of copyright for an “original work of authorship” has exclusive rights to do and to authorize others to do the following:
- To make copies – in whole or in part – of the work
- To create new works based upon the work
- To distribute copies of the work, either freely or for sale
- To perform the work publicly
- To display the work publicly
Does a work have to have a copyright notice to be protected?
Why do I need to get permission to use copyrighted materials?
When do I need permission?
- For which copyright protection has expired (see this chart that shows when copyrighted works enter the public domain: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.
- Which were created by a federal government agency (works created by state or local government agencies may require permission for use).
- Which the author has explicitly dedicated to the public domain. If there is no explicit statement on a work to this effect, do not assume that it is in the public domain.
You also may not need to seek permission if the author has explicitly licensed their work for certain types of re-use with a Creative Commons or similar license. If such a license is used, make sure your intended use is allowed by the license (if it is not, you will either need to seek permission or rely on fair use).
If, however, you are using or copying any portion of a copyrightable work (whether text, images, music, film, etc) that is not in the public domain or licensed for your type of proposed use, your use will fall into one of these categories:
- Use is covered by the academic exemption for displays/performances
- Use is covered by the TEACH Act
- Use is considered fair use after applying the “four factors” test
- Use is not covered by an academic exemption or does not qualify as fair use
If your proposed use falls into the last category, you must seek permission to use that work.
How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?
How do I know who to ask for permission?
If there is no copyright notice on the work, visit the Copyright Office website for help.
Be careful – the author of a work is not always the copyright holder. Copyrights can be assigned to other people or bodies, such as publishers, corporations, etc.
How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?
Does the TEACH Act apply to anything I do in a face-to-face classroom?
Do I own the copyright for everything I create or publish?
Are copyright infringement and plagiarism the same thing?
You should always include a citation when you are using elements – whether words, ideas, images, etc – of another person’s work. However, do not assume that because you have cited it that you also have permission to use it.
Most limited uses of copyrighted material for academic purposes (teaching, writing, etc) are allowed by fair use and do not require permission. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with what does and does not constitute fair use.