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Copyright: Fair Use & Other Exceptions

Public Domain

Public domain is the legal name given to a work that is not protected by any intellectual property rules such as copyright, patent or trademark, trade secrets, or contract. In other words, anyone may copy or use the work freely. The term is most commonly applied when copyright protection no longer pertains to a work, as in "then the work enters the public domain."


Many of the resources we use today are digital.  Although information is freely accessible on the web, it is still covered by Copyright Laws.  When using the internet for research or teaching purposes, it is best to understand the permissions of that particular site before deciding to use their material.  Many news outlets, like the New York Times,  have generous permissions policies clearly stated on their websites.  Others, like the Harvard Business Review, have extremely restrictive permissions policies.  If you cannot find permissions stated on a website, you will need to contact the company to get approval before using their material.  Usually, the process is as simple as finding the Contact Us section of the website and sending an email or making a phone call.  Clearly explain what information you want to use and it’s purpose.

Obtaining permission to use music and film is sometimes a little more difficult than obtaining permission from publishers and websites.  Below you will find a website explaining the different ways to go about obtaining permissions to use, music, film and images from their respective Copyright owners.


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Accepted Use

There are a number of exceptions or allowable uses within the U.S. Copyright Law, these include Fair Use, Public Domain and the TEACH Act.  Additionally, a Copyright Licensing service called the Creative Commons provides copyright protection to the content creator while allowing access to the public. 

Many newspaper and magazine publishers provide permissions for use of articles right on their website.  For example, the New York Times encourages the use of links in class while the Harvard Business Review does not allow use of their material at all.  It is important to look for permissions when obtaining material from a website.  If no policy is clearly provided, it is best to contact the publisher with your intended use for the material prior to using it.

By understanding and following these concepts, educators are able to use certain materials without obtaining permission from the Copyright holder. 

Fair Use

What is Fair Use?

 Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act states “…the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

 In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

It is important to remember that not every use in an academic setting is considered a Fair Use.  The U.S. Copyright office cleary states:

"The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that created a set of simple, easy-to-understand copyright licenses. These are legally enforceable licenses that allow creators to mark a work with permission to make a variety of uses, with the aim of expanding the range of things available for others to share, quote, adapt, and build upon. Creative Commons licenses do two things: They allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find work that is free to use without permission. As long as you obey the terms of the license attached to the work, you can use Creative Commons licensed material without fear of accidentally infringing someone’s copyright. We encourage the use of Creative Commons licenses because they effectively help communicate information about copyright holders’ intentions and thus help everyone know with clarity what may be used and how – and what requires permission. They help authors and creators manage their copyrights and share their creative work without losing control over it. Further, Creative Commons licenses facilitate creators’ rights by communicating clearly a contact for permission when appropriate.

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Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act enables the display of copyrighted materials for distance education by accredited, non-profit educational institutions (and some government entities) that meet the Act's qualifying requirements. Its primary purpose is to balance the needs of distance learners and educators with the rights of copyright holders.

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Dan Murphy's picture
Dan Murphy
Callahan Library
25 Audubon Ave.
Patchogue, NY 11772
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