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This page gives you an overview of copyright and fair use. For more information, see our comprehensive Copyright Guide.
Copyright gives the creator of a work the exclusive legal right to determine if and how that work will be shared, distributed, and/or reproduced. The length of time that a work remains under copyright protection will vary according to the type of work.
Copyright is governed by the Copyright Law of the United States, Title 17 of the U.S. Code.
Purpose: Copyright endeavors to create a balance between allowing a creator to receive financial and other benefits from their work and allowing the general public to use the work creatively as part of a democratic and free society.
What is covered:
What isn't covered:
Is copyright infringement different from plagiarism?
Plagiarism occurs when you claim someone else's work as your own by not providing appropriate attribution. It is primarily an ethical issue. On the other hand, copyright infringement occurs when you use someone's work without their permission or in a way that is not covered under fair use (for more on fair use, see below). Copyright infringement is a legal issue that constitutes either a civil or a criminal offense.
However, there can be overlap between plagiarism and copyright. For example, if a writer plagiarized another person's work and then sold it, that writer would be guilty of both plagiarism and copyright infringement.
Fair use is an exception to the rights of copyright holders that provides certain circumstances in which part or all of a copyrighted work can be used without permission or payment. Like copyright, fair use is governed by Title 17 of the U.S. Code (in Section 107).
Purpose: Fair use allows copyrighted works to be used for social and cultural benefits, including education.
What is covered:
Fair use of copyrighted works usually includes the following purposes, although other factors (e.g. how much of the work is used) may also apply.
When cases concerning fair use are brought to court, judges take four factors into account when making a final determination. A final judgment can only be made once these factors have been carefully balanced.
1. The Purpose and Character of Your Use
Use of a work for non-profit or educational purposes, including teaching, research, and scholarship, is more likely to be considered fair than use for commercial purposes or entertainment.
The first factor also favors uses that are transformative or illustrative. If a work is used in a new context or manner, distinct from its original purpose, it's more likely to be considered fair use.
2. The Nature of the Copyrighted Work
The use of nonfiction, factual work is more likely to be considered fair use than that of creative work, like novels, poems, plays, and art. This factor also makes it more likely for the use of published works to be designated as fair use than unpublished works (e.g. someone's private letters).
3. The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used
The third factor takes the amount of the copyrighted work used into account. Use of a work is more likely to be deemed fair use if a small quantity of the original work is used, particularly if the portion was not central to the entire work. Use is more likely to be classified as copyright infringement if it uses either a large portion of the work or a section that is considered integral to the piece.
4. The Effect on the Market
Use of a work that is not detrimental to the market or value of the original work is more likely to be considered fair use. This factor is tied closely to the first factor which takes the non-profit or commercial purpose of using the work into account.
Here are some examples of fair use in action...
Image from Association of Research Libraries
Documents for determining if use is fair or copyright infringement:
Explore real-life examples of copyright infringement and fair use in these media reports:
You can also learn more about copyright and fair use with this interactive card game: