Copyright and Fair Use

Learn about copyright and fair use issues facing writers today in this free lesson. It's especially important in the age of digital technology.

Copyright and fair use

Copyright symbol

In our Avoiding Plagiarism module, we gave you tips for citing, quoting, and incorporating various sources into your writing projects. However, depending on what types of sources you use, you may also have to consider copyright and fair use laws. For example, if you want to use someone else's photo or song in one of your own projects, you'll need to make sure you have the legal right to do so.

In this tutorial, you'll learn about the copyright protections that apply to work posted online, including images, text, videos, and more. You'll also learn about the rules that determine which of these resources you can use, and how you can use them.

The laws discussed in this tutorial are United States laws. No lawyer was involved in preparing this tutorial. We are not legal experts, and this tutorial should not be taken as legal advice.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the legal concept that works—art, writing, images, music, and more—belong to the people who create them. According to copyright law, any original content you create and record in a lasting form is your own intellectual property. This means other people can't legally copy your work and pretend it's their own. They can't make money from the things you create either.

You can still cite and refer to other sources (including copyrighted materials) in your work. But to use, copy, or change a copyrighted work, you need permission from the person who holds the copyright. This permission is called a license.

Although everyone has the right to require that others respect their copyright and ask permission to use their work, some people and organizations choose to license their content more freely. They do this by giving their work a Creative Commons license, or by placing their work in the public domain.

Review the infographic to get an overview of the differences among traditional copyright, Creative Commons, and public domain.

Traditional Copyright: Work cannot be used, adapted, copied, or published without the creator's permission. What does it apply to? All original work is protected under copyright when it's created. Creative Commons: Work may be used without permission, but only under certain circumstances. Creators set rules for the way their work is used. What does it apply to? Only work that creators have chosen to designate as Creative Commons. Public Domain: Work can be used, adapted, copied, and published, completely without restrictions, no permission needed. What does it apply to? Work published prior to 1923, work by long-dead creators, and work that creators have placed in the public domain.

Obtaining free content

If everything on the Internet belongs to someone, how do you obtain images, music, and other materials you can use in your projects for free? The answer is through public domain and Creative Commons-licensed content. To learn more, review the tips below.

Tip #1: Use public domain content

There are no restrictions on using works that are in the public domain, which means you can use them however you want—short of claiming that you created them yourself. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell whether or not something is in the public domain. There may be some cases when you know for sure that a work is public domain (for instance, if you find a photo or text you are sure was published before 1923), but for the most part the best way to find public domain content is to search for it specifically.

For help finding public domain content, visit these resources:

Tip #2: Use Creative Commons content

The symbols for Creative Commons licensesThe symbols for Creative Commons licenses

Although Creative Commons content won't cost you any money to obtain, it's not totally free: To use it, you must follow certain rules. People who choose to make their content Creative Commons can choose one or more of these licenses to apply to their work:

For help finding Creative Commons content, try these resources:

How to tell if content is Creative Commons

To tell if a piece of content is Creative Commons, look for the Creative Commons symbol , as well as symbols that indicate exactly which licenses apply to it. For instance, the symbols in the example below indicate that the photo has three licenses: Icon Attribution, Icon Non Commercial, and Icon No Derivative Works. This means you can use this photo if you credit the person who created it, don't make money from it, and don't change it.

Creative Commons license information for a photoCreative Commons license information for a photo

Finding content with Google

Google allows you to filter your search results to only show Creative Commons and public domain works. When conducting an advanced search, you can choose which usage rights you want Google to search for. For example, if you're searching for an image to use in your blog, you can change the usage rights to free to use or share.

Screenshot of Google searchFiltering a Google search by usage rights

For more information on conducting an advanced search, review our Advanced Search Strategies page.

Using copyrighted material

The copyright symbolThe copyright symbol

As you learned earlier, you generally need to license copyrighted material in order to use it, which often costs money. The exception to this is a rule called fair use. Fair use means you can use copyrighted material without a license only for certain purposes. These include:

You can't just grab a copyrighted photo and use it on your blog because you think it's pretty. However, it probably would be considered fair use if you included the photo in a blog post that commented on and analyzed the photographer's work.

Guidelines for fair use:

Misusing copyrighted material

photo of woman thinking

The concept of fair use can be tricky, especially when it comes to creating work you don't intend to post or publish. For example, if you download a series of graphics from a designer's website and use them to create a PowerPoint template for you and your coworkers (without permission), you could argue that it was never meant for the public and that you didn't mean any harm.

In situations like this, it's important to put yourself in the copyright holder's shoes. It's true that he or she will probably never find out about the template. It's also a relatively minor violation because you're just using the graphics around the office.

But how would you feel if you were a graphic designer and learned that people were using your work (your livelihood) in a way you didn't intend? And you're not getting paid or credited for it!

In short, it's better to do what's right than to risk violating copyright and fair use laws. Even if you think what you're doing is not a big deal, the copyright holder may disagree. If someone requests that you remove his or her materials from your work, you should do so immediately. Otherwise, you can suffer serious consequences, including:

  • Having your website shut down if your work is published online—like on a blog—after the copyright holder complains to your hosting service
  • Getting sued by the copyright holder

Licensing copyrighted content

If you want to use copyrighted content in a way that doesn't fall under fair use, you'll have to license it in order to get permission to post it. If you're interested in purchasing the rights to use images, video, and other media in your work, you may want to visit the following stock photo sites:

Sharing copyrighted videos

Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo offer the option to share videos by embedding them. When you embed a video, it automatically creates a link back to the place where it was originally posted. Because the original creator or poster is automatically credited, you don't have to worry about going through any extra steps to give credit.

Be aware that many videos on these sites—particularly videos of TV shows and movies—are in violation of copyright law, and may be removed from YouTube at any time. If a video is removed from YouTube, it will also be removed from wherever you've embedded it. You should never embed a video that you know is breaking copyright laws.

An embedded video from YouTubeAn embedded video from YouTube

Protecting your intellectual property

Copyright protects the things you create too. You own the original content you post on your blog, share on your website, or write in your research paper. If people copy or steal your intellectual property, you have the right to try and stop them.

Guarding your content online

The best way to protect your content is to keep an eye out for it elsewhere. These tips can help you determine if someone else has published your work online, like on a website or blog.

What to do if you find your content on another site

There are two things you can do if you find your images, text, or other media on someone else's website or blog. First, you can contact the person who runs the blog or site that took your content. Most blogs list a contact email address, but if you can't find one you can always leave a comment on the offending post. Ask firmly but politely to remove your content (or give you credit if you don't mind sharing it). This can work, especially in cases when the other person didn't realize any wrongdoing had occurred.

If contacting the blogger doesn't work, you may want to file a DMCA takedown request. DMCA refers to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, a law that's designed to help copyright holders protect their content. Under this law, if a site steals your original content you can complain to that site's service provider. If the service provider finds your complaint valid, it will take down the content.

To learn more about filing a DMCA complaint, read How to Send a DMCA Takedown Notice by Carolyn E. Wright from the blog Black Star Rising.