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Copyright & Fair Use

This is an academic guide on copyright and fair use.

The Basics

Copyright is a protection applied to an original work as soon as it is created. Works can include written text, music, pictures, videos, software, and more. Copyright allows the creator or owner of the work to control how it is distributed, altered, or used for commercial purposes. For more details about copyright law, see this guide from the University of Illinois Library.

Because the digital and information environments change so rapidly, copyright law and fair use are very situational. It can be challenging to determine what copyright rules apply in a situation, so if things seem unclear, that’s because they often are! If you are uncertain about whether or not you can use a work, ask your instructor or a librarian for help.

In most business situations, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder. However, there are several “fair use” scenarios that allow free and open use of copyrighted materials. Educational purposes like teaching and research qualify as fair use for most classroom projects. See the “Common Scenarios” page on this guide to find fair use scenarios for pictures, videos, and other types of media.

If you are going to publish your research or post your project openly online, these types of distributions might not qualify for fair use. See the “Fair Use” page on this guide for more details, or ask a librarian for help.

If an item is in the public domain, it means that it is free to use without permission or a fair use exception. These are typically very old works for which all copyright restrictions have expired. If you see a work marked with the Public Domain Mark (PDM), it is free to use! For more information about the public domain, including rare exceptions, see this wiki page from the Creative Commons.

Tab 4: How can I find fair use or public domain works?

See the tables below for some of the most commonly used sources for finding digital materials. You can also make fair use or public domain decisions about any piece of media you find online, but these situations may not be as straightforward about what is and what is not allowed. When in doubt, remember that educational fair use will cover you for most classroom projects. Always ask an instructor or librarian if you are unsure about using materials.

Resources for finding open content on the web

The following websites are digital collections of images with various copyright licenses. Many of these sites allow creators to upload their works and provide a license so that other people can use the works. The license will tell you what you can and cannot do with a work, but remember that fair use for educational purposes may give you an exception from complying with all aspects of the license. To understand the license terms, refer to the “Key Terms” tab.


Commercial vs. Noncommercial


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