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Copyright & Fair Use: Copyright: an Overview

A guide to copyright and fair use issues related to course materials, lectures, presentations, reserves, and scholarly publishing



Copyright is a form of protection provided by the U.S. government (Title 17 US Code) to "original works of authorship"; this includes music, art, writing, and other media.  The work does not need to be published, and the copyright may not actually be owned by the person who created the work.  Owners of copyright have the exclusive right to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Create derivative works
  • Distribute copies of the work for sale, lease, or trade
  • Perform, display, or play the work publicly

The Public Domain

When using works in the Public Domain, you don't need to worry about fair use because these works are not protected by copyright. 

1. Any works published in the United States before 1923 are in the Public Domain.  

2. Works published between 1923 and 1964 that did not renew copyrights are also in the Public Domain. Check the Copyright Renewal Database 

3. Government works are not copyrighted and can be used freely.

4. Works whose authors have chosen to relinquish their copyrights.


Finding Works in the Public Domain

Creative Commons Licensing

Creative Commons Licensing is essentially a way for creators to determine the copyrights they wish to retain.  For many of us in academia it is more important to share our work with others than to profit from it, so we prefer to determine our own licensing requirements.

See Creative Commons for more details.  



Academic libraries tend to be the de facto source for copyright and fair use guidelines in their institutions.  This guide is just that: a guide.  The information  here should not be taken as legal advice.

Further Reading: A Curated List of Resources

A Visual

copyright word cloud

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources is a general term describing a broad range of text-based content and multi-media freely available on the web that you can use in your classes.  OERs can be great resources for supplementing your course content. One common example is TED Talks.  However, many more of these exist.  The advantage of using OERs is that many of them are liscened under Creative Commons, often allowing much more flexibility in their use, particularly in educational contexts.  Also, using materials that are open access promotes sharing and learning in the commons.

OER Commons is a great site for getting started.  You can browse resources by discipline and search by keyword. Each lesson plan is clearly flagged for the type of rights the creator wishes to retain.  Some are labled "no strings attached" while others are labled "read the fine print."   

Infringement in a Nutshell

Copyright infringement does NOT occur when you simply make a copy of something.  It's when you publish or distribute that copy or multiple copies that infringement may occur.

Four things you can do without worrying about infringement:

  • photocopy a single copy for personal use
  • download one electronic copy
  • publish a quotation or summary
  • publish a parody

Creative Commons License: Please Use This Guide!

Creative Commons License
Copyright and Fair Use Libguide by Mason Library@Keene State College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.