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Fair Use and Copyright: Students

How we use each other's stuff

Your knowledge is built on other people’s knowledge.

  • The Golden Rule: treat others’ work as you would like yours to be treated.  

  • You can ALWAYS ask permission.

When you make stuff

Everything you create is automatically copyrighted. As the creator, you can control who uses your work, and how.  While we all want our best work to go viral, we may still have strong feelings about how it is used, and by whom.

If you have work that you would like to encourage others to use, a (free) Creative Commons license helps you do that. Follow the easy-to-use steps on this page to determine which license is right for the particular work you've just created.

Be sure to read "When you want to use other people's work" (to the right). Even when you’re creating, you’re often consuming and need to do it respectfully and ethically.

When you want to use other people's work

When we want to use other people's material, it is best to assume that pretty much everything is copyright protected. And yes, that includes the notes your classmate just threw in the trash! This doesn't mean that we can't and shouldn't use each other's work, however. There is an important exception to federal copyright law that can allow us to use other peoples work - even if it is copyrighted.

Fair Use allows us to use other's work in a variety of cases (such as satire, criticism, education and news reporting to give a few examples) without first seeking permission. By relying on Fair Use we can learn from other people's knowledge and ethically build on their works. To find out if the use you have in mind qualifies as Fair Use you have to equally consider four factors. Briefly, they are:

  • Purpose and character of the use
  • Nature of the original work
  • Amount and substantiality of portion used
  • Effect on the potential marketplace

To understand how Fair Use works and to do an analysis, we recommend this site:

When Fair Use doesn't apply, here are some options:

  • Search for materials with a Creative Commons (CC) license. Here you can find works that authors have agreed to share.

  • Select materials that are in the Public Domain and no longer under copyright protection. Determining if a particular work is in the Public Domain can require a bit of research and the U.S. Copyright office as well as Project Gutenberg are good places to start.

  • Open Access also allows unrestricted use of online research materials.

Plagiarism has little to do with copyright law and is often about your writing itself. For help with clarification and writing instruction, the best place to visit is your college's Writing Resource Center.

Stuff you can't do

  • Scanning/photocopying/selling others' work as your own is against the law - don’t do it.