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Copyright and Fair Use Guide

Copyright and Fair Use Frequently Asked Questions


Copyright is actually a bundle of rights associated with creative intellectual property. These rights include:

  • the right to produce the work        Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces Copyright
  • to prepare derivative works
  • to distribute copies
  • to perform the work
  • to display the work publicly


In the United States, copyright is automatically granted once the work is fixed in a medium. The medium can include word processing software like Microsoft Word or online blogging platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter.  U.S. copyright law is covered in Title 17 of the U.S Code. For more detail on the current U.S. copyright law, view Title 17 in its entirety at or at

To learn more about copyright, visit our Copyright & Fair Use Tutorial.

Fair Use

 Fair use is a compromise between copyright law and the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech. It allows use of portions of copyrighted work without requiring permission from the copyright holder. Fair use is most often used for purposes such as parody or satire, criticism, teaching, and reporting the news.

Fair use is defined in Section 107 of U.S. copyright law. Four factors are considered when determining the fair use of copyrighted materials.

  1. the purpose and character of the use;
  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.

Fair use checklists are available to help you conduct an evaluation of your intended use of copyrighted material and document your decision. One such checklist can be found at


Public Domain

Works said to be in the public domain are works that are not subject to copyright laws and are available for the public without seeking permissions or licenses. Intellectual work enters the public domain mainly through three ways: copyright has expired, copyright is inapplicable, or copyright has been forfeited (for example, a creator can will their work to the public).


Creative Commons

Creative Commons provides a free licensing system that provide a simple, standardized way for creators to give the public permission to share and use their creative work — on conditions of their choice. You can find works licensed in this way through a Creative Commons search. Just remember: Even though it’s free to use these works, you must follow the terms of the license and cite your sources!


Watch the video below to learn more about Creative Commons.






Getting Permission


sample permissions letter

If you are unsure if your use of copyrighted material meets criteria laid out in the four-factor analysis, you can always ask for permission from a copyright holder to use their work.

To the left is a model permissions letter from Duke University Libraries. Click on the letter to download a Word Document version that you can explore, modify, and use yourself. Keep in mind that this is only a sample letter and specific situations will require slightly different language or documents.