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Copyright: Sharing and Re-Use


In addition to enshrining rights to creators, U.S. Copyright also allows for many exceptions to those rights, which give people the ability to access, share, and re-use copyrighted material in certain situations. Sections 107-122 of Title 17 cover the many limitations and exceptions to the “bundle of rights” set out in Section 106, including special allowances for libraries and archives, as well as fair use, which is an exemption that anyone can use. This page will introduce the concept of fair use and how it can be applied to copyrighted works. This page also includes a section on public domain, which applies to works not protected by copyright or other intellectual property laws.

Fair Use

Fair use allows for the reproduction of copyrighted work for the purposes of, "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  (Section 107, Title 17, U.S. Code)

To determine if the use is a fair use, the following four factors are considered:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(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.

(Section 107, Title 17, U.S. Code)

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding fair use, however there are also many resources that can help you make informed decisions. This quick guide from University of Texas Libraries collapses the four factors into two basic questions about whether the use is transformative and if the amount being used is appropriate for the transformative purposes. If your use is not transformative and you need to go through the four factors to determine fair use, becoming familiar with each factor and how they are judged together can be helpful. 


Resources on Fair Use

Video: Fair Use in Seven Words

Some people like to use this concise statement as a way to remember the essence of fair use:

"Use fairly. Not too much. Have Reasons."

This video (2:16) from University of Virginia Library explains the phrase.

Public Domain

Public domain materials are not protected by copyright. These works are owned by the public rather than individuals. Anyone can use or share public domain materials without obtaining permission. Works usually enter the public domain in the following ways:

  • The copyright term has expired
  • The copyright owner deliberately puts the work into the public domain
  • Copyright law does not apply to the type of work (such as facts, ideas, also all U.S. federal government documents are in the public domain)

Check out this guide from University of Texas Libraries for a more in-depth view of public domain and suggestions for where to find public domain materials:

Determining whether something is in the public domain can be complicated. Refer to this chart from Cornell University Libraries for help:

The information contained on this page is educational and is not to be taken as legal advice.