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Copyright, Fair Use, and Plagiarism for Students

The Basics of Copyright



"img4368"by Proctor Archives is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0Copyright law applies to nearly all creative and intellectual works.

When students complete assignments and prepare projects or papers using other peoples' works, or when students copy materials in any format, copyright law applies. Students are responsible for making sure that when using copyrighted material, that it doesn't violate the rights of others. Your work is meant to be original. However, frequently the learning process involves building on the works of others. This often means quoting other authors, using ideas, photographs, or diagrams, borrowing data, or incorporating audiovisual works into your presentations. When using this information, it is your responsibility to ensure that you comply with copyright law.

Copyright (Title 17 of the United States Code, a federal law that protects intellectual property) was enacted to advance the progress of the sciences and arts. For a work to be protected by copyright, it must be an original idea that has been expressed, portrayed or fixed in some sort of medium that can be reproduced in a tangible way. To be considered original, there must be a “modicum of creativity” in how it has been expressed. In other words, once you create an original work, and fix it on paper, in clay, or digitally on your computer, so that the work can now be reproduced in some format, then the work is considered copyrightable. An idea or a fact is not copyrightable.

Copyright law protects a wide and diverse array of materials and is instant and automatic at the time they are created. Books, journals, photographs, works of visual art and sculpture, music, sound recordings, computer programs, websites, film, architectural drawings, choreography and many other materials are within the reach of copyright law. If you can see it, read it, hear it, or watch it, it likely is captured by copyright. The reproduction of these copyrighted works requires either written permissions from the creators, or compliance with "Fair Use".

What is not protected by copyright?

  • facts or ideas
  • titles, names, short phrases, or slogans (although these items may be protected under trademark law)
  • commonly known information
  • procedures, methods, systems or processes
  • works of the United States Government
  • works that have passed into the public domain

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between copyright and plagiarism?

Why do I need permission to use a copyrighted work?

When a work is protected by copyright, the person who holds the copyright is given a set of exclusive rights over the work, including the right to copy, distribute, perform, and adapt the work. These rights are subject to a number of exceptions, including Fair Use and exemptions for use in a classroom setting. Unless your use of a work meets the requirements of one of these exceptions, copyright law requires you to get permission from the copyright holder before using their work.

How do I recognize a copyrighted work?

It's not always easy, but generally, you'll need to know when the work was published. If a copyrighted work, such as a book, song, movie, photo, or other type of artwork enters old age, then it is in the public domain and is no longer protected under law. It's free for you to use without permission. Stanford University Libraries has a great explanation of public domain on their website. Other materials not covered by copyright and in the public domain are documents and materials produced by the federal government.

So, if I want to use a work for educational purposes, isn't that Fair Use?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted works without requiring permission from the copyright holder for a number of educational purposes -- commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or scholarship. However, it is important to remember that an educational purpose alone does not mean that your use will be protected as Fair Use. Copyright law sets forth a number of fact-specific criteria that must be evaluated to determine whether a use is "Fair." Please refer to the Fair Use section of this guide for more information.

What if I just copy portions of my friend's textbook instead of buying my own?

If you don't buy your own copy of the textbook, you are violating copyright law as well as stealing from the textbook publisher.

Do I need permission to show a movie in class?

No, you do not need permission from the copyright holder to show a copyrighted movie in a face-to-face (i.e., not online) class. This is because copyright law provides for a specific exemption that allows performances or displays of works during face-to-face activities at nonprofit educational institutions, whether in the classroom or in a "similar place devoted to instruction." This exemption applies not just to movies, but to any copyrighted work. This exemption does not extend to situations where you have reason to believe that the copy of the work was "not lawfully made," e.g. an illegally copied streaming video or DVD.  

Do I need permission to link to materials on the web?

Generally, merely providing links to materials on the web does not require the permission of the copyright holder. It is a good rule of thumb to use linking to provide access to copyrighted materials whenever possible, rather than posting PDFs or otherwise reproducing web materials.

Where can I find copyright-free photos and images?

See the Free Icons and Images section of this guide. Wikipedia also has a list of public domain image resources. However, please be sure to check each site carefully to determine which images are "free" and which are not.