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Copyright, Fair Use, and Public Domain: Copyright/Fair Use Information

Provides guidelines and resources for finding media and giving attribution.

What Is Copyright?

Picture used with permission of a Creative Common's License.

Copyright is protection provided by law (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors/creators of “original works of authorship,” expressed in any tangible medium. This protection is available for original works from the moment they are created and expressed in a tangible medium, and it applies whether they are published, unpublished, or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright ownership and protection is available for an author/creator if three requirements are met:

  1. Fixation—the work exists in a medium from which the author’s expression can be read, seen, or heard, either directly or by the aid of a machine;
  2. Originality—the work owes its origin and independent creation to an author;
  3. Minimal creativity—the work is the product of at least a minimal level of creativity.
    (Source: Brigham Young University Library)


Copyright 101
From Brigham Young University Library

Classroom Copyright Chart

Follow the link below for a great (and fairly exhaustive) list of mediums and how you are permitted to use them in the classroom or for projects.   

What Is Fair Use?

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. Another way of putting this is that fair use is a defense against infringement. If your use qualifies under the definition above, and as defined more specifically in this section, then your use would not be considered an illegal infringement.

So what is a "transformative" use? If this definition seems ambiguous or vague, be aware that millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent attempting to define what qualifies as a fair use. There are no hard-and-fast rules, only general rules and varying court decisions. That's because the judges and lawmakers who created the fair use exception did not want to limit the definition of fair use. They wanted it--like free speech--to have an expansive meaning that could be open to interpretation.

Most fair use analysis falls into two categories: commentary and criticism; or parody.

1. Comment and Criticism

If you are commenting upon or critiquing a copyrighted work--for instance, writing a book review -- fair use principles allow you to reproduce some of the work to achieve your purposes. Some examples of commentary and criticism include:

  • quoting a few lines from a Bob Dylan song in a music review
  • summarizing and quoting from a medical article on prostate cancer in a news report
  • copying a few paragraphs from a news article for use by a teacher or student in a lesson, or
  • copying a portion of a Sports Illustrated magazine article for use in a related court case.

The underlying rationale of this rule is that the public benefits from your review, which is enhanced by including some of the copyrighted material. Additional examples of commentary or criticism are provided in the examples of fair use cases.

2. Parody

A parody is a work that ridicules another, usually well-known work, by imitating it in a comic way. Judges understand that by its nature, parody demands some taking from the original work being parodied. Unlike other forms of fair use, a fairly extensive use of the original work is permitted in a parody in order to "conjure up" the original.
(Source: Stanford University Libraries)

Additional Resources

Copyright from the University of Minnesota Libraries
Includes a Fair Use Worksheet among other tools

Copyright from the U.S. Government

Copyright Basics Video from the Copyright Clearance Center

Charts and Tools provided by Stanford University