Copyright and Fair Use

Tutorial Directory
artistic graphic of copyright symbol

How can you determine if information on a Web page is copyrighted?

There may be a copyright mark, ©. The creator's name may be given at the top or bottom of the page. It may be dated, indicating that it should not be recreated. It does not matter whether a page is marked with copyright or not. You should assume that all print, image, and sound materials are published under intellectual property right protection laws; the creator owns his/her own creation and holds the copyright automatically from the time it hits paper or electronic media.

You cannot do whatever you want with published digital information, but this holds for your creations too!

How long does copyright last?

In general, a copyright starts the moment intellectual property is published and ends 70 years after the death of the last author/creator. Copyright can be renewed by the publisher or estate of the author. When in doubt, a good "fair use" rule of thumb is to quote only ten percent of any media exactly and destroy any project after two years.

Common Misunderstandings

The Web is a free-access use-as-you-please resource
I can do whatever I want with things I find on the Internet; no one can see me
The Web is free and you can do what you want with Internet resources...

...that is until you get caught! It is illegal to hack into private Web sites, plagiarize other's work, pirate software, spread viruses, or steal research papers. If caught and convicted, you might be fined thousands of dollars and even thrown in jail. (To understand the nature of plagiarism, see the Micro Module Plagiarism)

Many people incorrectly believe that only text can have a copyright. While an idea can't be copyrighted, original work based on that idea is intellectual property. Photographs, clip art, Web design, graphs, data tables, audio tracks, music, and movie clips all have implicit copyright protection...even if they don't display the © copyright symbol!

Downloading music is okay. Everyone does it

Recording artists make a living by selling their music. Most consider unpaid downloading of music the ethical equivalent of shoplifting. The recording industry has begun suing thousands of individuals for violating copyright laws by file sharing compact disc music. Guilty parties may pay fines of $750-$150,000 for each song shared. Even if you did not put the music file on your computer, if it is there and you own the computer, you pay.

Why would you want to know about copyright?

Understanding copyright is a professional obligation. It is important to be able to explain the concept of intellectual property to both staff and students. Intellectual property rights are essential to those who work in knowledge fields. Copyright protects the original work of scientists, educators, philosophers, and mathematicians.

What information should I include when using copyrighted materials?

When using materials from the Internet, the minimum copyright credit should include the copyright symbol, ©; year the material was first published (1894); and the name of the copyright owner (Janice P. Cumquat, Ph.D.). This is in addition to any other citation information you provide for a reference you might use. (For more on how to create citations, see the MicroModule Citation)

What is Fair Use?

The concept of Fair Use allows some 'running room' for educators, reviewers, reporters, researchers, and satirists who wish to use copyrighted materials as part of their work.

For educational purposes, if the use of the copyrighted materials is relevant to the lesson, part of classroom instruction, and not broadcast or published for general consumption you are most likely protected by fair use. Most of the time copying is not legally a fair use. Unless you have the author's explicit permission, copying usually violates the author's copyright. Some of the time Fair Use applies.

Graphic of caliper symbolizing measurement of fair use

General Rules: The More You Use, the Less Fair Your Use Is Likely to Be!

  • Limit of 2 years on using materials in a multimedia teaching project
  • Limit of 10% or 3 min of motion media, which ever is less
  • Limit of 10% or 1000 words text, which ever is less
  • Use no more than 3 poems by 1 poet or 5 poets from 1 anthology, up to 250 words from a poem
  • Limit of 10% or 30 sec music from single musical work, can not substantially change music
  • Whole image but no more than 5 by 1 artist or photographer
  • Limit of 10% or 15 images single published work, which ever is less
  • Limit of 10% or 2500 fields or cells from a database or data table, which ever is less
  • No more than 2 copies of a project plus one back up not in use
  • Each creator can have 1 copy if multiple creators
Graphic of woman reading a book on copyright law

The Four Factor Fair Use Test

Judgment of educational fair use is based on four considerations:

  1. The use of a copyrighted work is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work (is it appropriate for this specific educational use)
  3. The amount of material used in relation to the entire work (10% is a rule of thumb)
  4. The impact this use might have on the sales potential of the copyrighted work

Fair Use is a subtle concept, with many situational nuances. Using copyrighted materials for a one time class presentation, or in a single copy report is usually fair use. However, when you 'publish' copyrighted materials for school use you enter a gray area. Are you making unlimited photocopies? How many copies are floating around? Do the students have copies? Are you sharing the materials with any parents or community members? Are you posting the materials on a publicly accessible Web site? If you answered yes to more than two of these questions, you may be violating fair use and copyright.

Understanding Fair Use

For a deeper understanding of Fair Use, try any of these excellent online interactive tutorials. Better yet, introduce your staff and students to these 'hands-on' resources and learn how to apply these challenging concepts.

Multi-Media Materials

Copyright Website

This site lives up to its own billing as " The Internet's first and premiere Copyright Registration and Information Resource." They feature a simple online 'wizard' that automates and simplifies the process of applying for a Federal copyright. Also their sections on visual, audio, and digital copyright are rich case studies and current information. By illustrating concepts with famous copyright infringement cases, this sight helps make the abstract nature of copyright more tangible.


Copyright and Fair Use

This Stanford University Website offers an extensive listing of Web documents and sites dealing with copyright issues. You'll also fine current news articles and specific resources for librarians.

Authored by Lora K. Kaisler and Dennis O'Connor, 2005 | revised 2015