What should I know about Copyright and Fair Use?

Post updated December 7, 2016

The Internet makes it very easy to acquire and copy all sorts of creative works, and to share them with students for course-related purposes. But you should always carefully consider, before you share (even in a password-protected environment), whether you have the right to copy and share anything — text, images, audio, video, etc. —  that might be protected by U.S. Copyright law.

What is Copyright?
The U.S. Copyright law gives the creators of “original works of authorship” the right to reproduce and distribute, perform, or display their creations publicly; or grant someone else permission to do so. What does that mean to you as an instructor? If you’re planning to incorporate someone else’s work into your course, you need to know the status of the copyright.

What is Fair Use?
Fair Use is not a law governing whether or how you can use copyrighted material. Rather, it is a set of factors by which you can justify your use of copyrighted materials without obtaining permission from the copyright holder. In brief, the factors are:

  1. Purpose and character of the use (teaching, scholarship, research, non-profit, personal use)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work (factual, published)
  3. Amount and substantiality of portion used (small amount relative to the entire work)
  4. Effect on the potential market for the work (original is out of print or unavailable; there is no ready market for permissions; reasonable attempts to obtain a copy or permission to copy have been documented)

For a complete analysis, go to CUNY Fair Use Analysis, from which the above is excerpted.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask: the CUNY Copyright Committee is one group to contact (copyrightOLS@mail.cuny.edu). You can also contact Simone Yearwood, Access Services Librarian in the Rosenthal Library at Queens College (simone.yearwood@qc.cuny.edu).

Additional resources:
(C)opyright @ CUNY, especially their page For Faculty, which provides examples of dos and don’ts
Copyright basics
Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)
Copyright Law of the United States of America
The Direction Of Fair Use For Education: New Law And New Possibilities
Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video

The Past, Present, and Future of Ownership (On the Media)
A Fair(y) Use Tale, created by Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University


  1. Claudia Perry
    Sometimes it is helpful to have additional print resources to consult if you don't have time to sit through a video or webinar or whatever. So, here are some of the resources I particularly recommend (I have not checked them recently but they were current in January). Association of Research Libraries. (n.d.). Copyright & intellectual property policies. Retrieved January 14, 2013 from http://www.arl.org/pp/ppcopyright/copyresources/texaco~print.shtml. Skim initial paragraphs only. A useful complement to the case summaries below. Columbia University Libraries/Information Science. Copyright Advisory Office. (©2011). Case summaries. Retrieved from http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/fair-use/case-summaries/ Columbia University Libraries/Information Science. Copyright Advisory Office. (©2011). Copyright quick guide. Retrieved from http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/copyright-in-general/copyright-quickguide/ Creative Commons. (n.d.). About. Retrieved January 14, 2013, from http://creativecommons.org/about An alternative to traditional copyright. Hirtle. P. (2012, January 1). Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Retrieved from http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

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