Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Do You Really Have the Right to Use That?

"Copyright Symbol" by Mike Seyfang / CC BY 2.0
Most students, and even educators, don’t think twice about copying and redistributing content created by other individuals, not realizing that they may be in violation of copyright laws. As of March 1, 1989 all creations (text, images, videos, etc.), automatically receive this protection even if the creator never formally files for copyright status.

In this post, I’ve put together a quick guide to help educators better understand this concept and to help them teach students the need to respect the work of others.

Quick Guide to Copyright, Fair Use & Public Domain

  • Only expressions of ideas are copyright protected. (However, appropriating someone else's idea without credit attribution is plagiarism.)
  • As of March 1, 1989, all work is copyright protected the moment it is created.
  • Copyright registration is not required to copyright a creator’s work. (It is, however, helpful in ligation cases to establish proof of copyright.)

What fair use usually allows (however, there are exceptions)
  • Criticism and comments
  • News reporting
  • Research and scholarship
  • Nonprofit educational uses
  • Parody
  • Noncommercial uses

Does it qualify under Fair Use?
It depends on how you use the work. Each case is unique, and there is no guarantee that the courts will rule in your favor. These are the questions usually considered in a court of law when determining fair use.
  • Is this an entirely new creation?
  • What is the purpose of using this work?
  • Will you be competing with the creator of the original work?
  • How much of the original work are you using? (You can only reproduce a small portion of the work.)
  • What quality and essence of the original work are you using? (There is no magic percentage that protects you under Fair Use. If it is the “heart and soul” of the work, even reproducing a tiny fraction of the work could be considered a violation of copyright laws.)

How to Determine If a Work Is in the Public Domain (United States Only)
The table below is created from information published by Stanford University Libraries’ “Welcome to the Public Domain.”
In the Public Domain
Work published before 1923
Work published between 1923 and 1963
Work has copyright status for the first 28 year, but has to be renewed to retain copyright status
Work published between 1993 and February 28, 1989
If the work has no copyright notice and “the law has not made an exception for its omission, then the work is the public domain.”
Work created by the government


This guide cannot be substituted for legal advice and should not be construed as such. The information contained herein is based on the works cited above.


  1. Curious: Why is Plagiarism such a major issue?

    1. Hi Arthur,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog. When copyright laws are involved, then these instances of plagiarism are illegal.