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Copyright & Fair Use for Education

A guide for faculty introducing copyright and fair use.

Can I use it?

Here are the most likely copyright situations you will encounter when looking at a resource:

Type of copyright
Public Domain
Out of copyright
Creative Commons License
Item still in Copyright
Unsure Status
Can you use it?


(with Some Restrictions)

Maybe Maybe
Additional Notes
Works in the "Public Domain" may be used without permission or attribution.  Items that no longer have copyright protection (either through time or purpose) are considered part of the Public Domain Creative Commons Licensing works within copyright law to allow creators to give permission for others to use their works.  It is the alternative to "all rights reserved."  Using copyrighted materials will depend on the intended use of the work and whether this use falls under the Fair Use or classroom exception Using Copyrighted materials is the responsibility of each individual instructor.  If you can not be sure the copyright status of a work, it is advised that you apply the fair use exception to determine how it can be used.

Protected Works - In Copyright

Copyright protection is automatic as soon as the author expresses a creation in a physical form.  Unless the item falls into one of the categories listed below, you should assume that materials have copyright protection - whether or not they contain a notice or symbol.

The length of time an item enjoys copyright protection varies according to when the item was first granted copyright.  For the most part, anything produced before 1925 will be in the Public Domain. 

Always try to find the copyright status of any work you intend to use!

For more information on the copyright lengths and protection, please consult the Cornell University Library Copyright Information Center section on the Public Domain. (PDF version) 

Non-Protected Works - Public Domain

Pubic Domain

Public Domain materials are works that do not have any protections from copyright, trademark, or patent laws.  They do not belong to any one individual or group  but owned by the public.  Anyone can use items from the Public Domain without permission.

Although individual works may be protected by copyright, collections of these works are often protected.  For example: If someone creates a collection consisting of freely available web images or poems, the collection will have copyright protection.  This is referred to as the "collective rights"  copyright.

For more information on this topic, please visit Stanford University Libraries' Copyright and Fair Use Resource Pages 

Permitted Works -- Creative Commons Licensing

Creative Commons License 

Creative Commons Licenses provide creators with special licenses that allow for the distribution and use of their work in certain circumstances.  The authors maintain copyright protection status but grant others the use of those materials without the need to acquire extra permissions.  These licenses always require attribution of the original author.  There are six CC license options.  Most materials with a CC license will have the appropriate symbol for that license:

Symbol Use Description
CC-BY This license will allow others to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work even commercially as long as they credit you for the original creation.  This is the most accommodating of licenses offered.
Image of CC BY SA License CC-BY-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.  All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. 
Image of CCBYNC symbol CC-BY-NC This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon a work for non-commercial purposes. Any new works must also acknowledge the original and be non-commercial but do not need to be licensed on the same terms.
Image of CC BY ND license CC-BY-ND This license allows for redistribution of the original for both , commercial and non-commercial purposes.  The original author must be credited and the creation must be passed along unchanged and in whole.
Image of the CC BY NC SA license CC-BY-NC-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon a work for non-commercial purposes, as long as credit is given tot he original and any new creations be licensed under the identical terms.
Image of CC BY ND symbol CC-BY-NC-ND This license is the most restrictive of the six licenses. It allows others to download works and share them with others as long as credit is given to the original creator, no changes have been made and the final purpose is non-commercial.


Fair Use Exception

FAIR USE Exception

The "Fair Use Exception" allows for the use of copyrighted materials without permission provided the intent and presentation of the materials falls within the FAIR USE Guidelines.

Fair Use is the customary way that educators use copyrighted materials in their classes and for their students. 

There is a special section of this guide dedicated to information on Fair Use.   

TEACH Act Exception


In 2002, Congress recognized the need for clarification with copyright rules for the digitlal teaching environment.  The "Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization" or TEACH Act was passed and signed into law.  This act expanded and clarified certain copyright considerations for the digital world.  Some of the allowances from the TEACH Act are:

  • Allowing reasonable/limited portions of dramatic and audiovisual works to be posted for instruction.
  • Promoting direct links to e-resources, videos that include attribution, and streaming media.
  • Allowing scenes/portions of films to be uploaded for limited amount of time for instructional purposes.

Under the TEACH Act, permission for using copyrighted materials is not needed provided certain criteria are considered.   More information on the exception can be found here.

For more information on the TEAC Act, visit the American Librarian Association TEACH Act Information page.

Streaming Services

  • Online providers and repositories of copyrighted materials will often have their own user and rights agreements for their materials.
  • For example, video streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime have terms of service which prevent showing videos over the air to an entire class.
  • Hosting sites, such as YouTube and FLIKR have different rules but it is always better to link students to the information instead of downloading the materials for offline use.