Skip to Main Content

Faculty Services

Resources & services available to university faculty.

Copyright & Fair Use

Copying for the Classroom

The rules governing the relationship between copyright and education are not clear, simple, or unambiguous. These guidelines, however, will help you understand when it is okay to copy and when it isn’t.

These resources are for reference purposes only. The librarians and staff of the J. W. Martin Library cannot give legal advice.

Copyright Basics

Figure 1
Copyright Basics for Teachers

Note. From Copyright Basics for Teachers, by R. Kimmons, , YouTube ( Copyright by Royce Simmons.

What Is Fair Use?

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an infringement.

Rich Stim, Fair Use, Stanford Copyright & Fair Use

Education and Fair Use

Use of materials in an educational setting is technically different from fair use, though the two are often confused.

Fair use, strictly so-called, requires transformation such as commentary, parody, or other alteration. Legal use in an educational setting does not, but it still has restrictions.

There are extensive guidelines written into law to govern copying for education. They are summarized here from the government circular, Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.

To fall within the guidelines, copies used for educational purposes should meet tests of brevity, spontaneity, cumulative effect, and notice of copyright:


A complete poem or less, not exceeding 250 words.

A complete prose work of 2,500 words or less.

An excerpt from a longer prose work of no more than 1,000 words or 10%, whichever is less.

A maximum of two pages from a special work such as a short, illustrated children’s book.

A maximum of one reproduced image per published work.


Copying is instigated by the particular instructor using the work.

The need for the work is realized close enough to the instruction period that seeking permission is not feasible.

Cumulative Effect

The copying of a particular work is for only one course.

No more than one complete work or two excerpts is copied from a single author.

Copying of this nature is done no more than nine times in a term.

Notice of Copyright

A notice of copyright should be printed with the copy.

These are minimal guidelines. If you keep within these guidelines, you are certainly within the legal bounds of acceptable copying for education. However, it is possible that copying may sometimes exceed these guidelines and still be considered legal. Copyright law is vague—often deliberately so—and the exact boundary of legal use and copyright infringement is not always clear.

Public Domain & Creative Commons

Public Domain

Many works are in the public domain, meaning they have no copyright.

Public-domain works can be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise. Public-domain works include works old enough for their copyrights to have expired, works whose copyrights their creators have surrendered, and works to which copyright is inapplicable.

In the United States, copyright law has changed over time. Presently, books have a copyright that lasts 95 years or 70 years after the death of the author. Due to changes in the law, there was a gap between and during which no books entered the public domain through copyright expiration.

In , books published in entered the public domain. From that year forward, books continue to enter the public domain every year.

Dedicating to the Public Domain

Creative Commons (discussed below) has a simple method of dedication to the public domain.

It’s called CC0 or “No Rights Reserved.” Creative Commons also produce a mark that can be applied to works known to be in the public domain.

“No Rights Reserved”

CC0 enables scientists, educators, artists, and other creators and owners of copyright or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance, and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.

Public Domain

The Public Domain Mark enables works that are no longer restricted by copyright to be marked as such in a standard and simple way, making them easily discoverable and available to others.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons licenses, managed by, are widely recognized on the internet as an alternative to copyright.

Designed to be compatible with international law and available in both human-readable and machine-readable formats, Creative Commons licenses allow creators to set explicit allowances for their creative works. They are a supplement to copyright that allows for more generous permissions without placing a work in the public domain.

The Creative Commons Licenses

There are six licenses. They are as follows:


This license lets others 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. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.


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. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.


This license lets others reuse the work for any purpose, including commercially; however, it cannot be shared with others in adapted form, and credit must be provided to you.


This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.


This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.


This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Research Librarian