Skip to Main Content

Copyright Overview

An overview of copyright and related issues.

Using Copyrighted Material Legally

Most academic work requires the use of copyrighted materials in some form or another. Since works are automatically copyrighted upon creation, scholarship can become challenging. Fortunately, there are several ways to legally use copyrighted materials including getting permission, looking for content licensed under a Creative Commons license, making a fair use, or looking for content that is in the public domain.

Get Permission

Permissions: if a work is still protected by copyright, consider contacting the copyright holder to obtain permission or a license to use the material. Depending on the type of work and your intended use, there may be a fee associated with obtaining permission. If permission is denied, or you can't afford the fee, not all is lost; you may still be able to use the material as a fair use if your use meets certain criteria. See the fair use section below and  the Fair Use Tab of this guide.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons: look for materials that are distributed under a Creative Commons License. These materials are still protected by copyright, but the creators / copyright holders have already assigned a creative commons license to them to promote creativity and innovation by eliminating the need for others to request permission for every use. 

Fair Use

Fair Use: copyright law actually makes a provision for using copyrighted material without asking permission. Under the “fair use” rule of copyright law, an author may make limited use of another author’s work without asking permission. However, “fair use” is open to interpretation. Fair use is intended to support teaching, research, and scholarship, but educational purpose alone does not make every use of a work fair. 

For more on fair use, the Fair Use Tab of this guide, and/or these links:

Public Domain

Public Domain: A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and may be freely used by everyone.

Works enter the public domain for three main reasons:

  1. the term of copyright for the work has expired;
  2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright or
  3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government.

Generally, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States 95 years ago (in 2023, works published before 1928 entered the public domain). Each January 1, this year, increases one year. Another large block of works is in the public domain because they were published before 1964, and the copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) A smaller group of works entered the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Use the Copyright Slider Tool to determine if a work is still protected by copyright or if it has entered the public domain.

Copyright Tools

How do I know if something is still under copyright? Try these tools: