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Fair Use and the Public Domain

Fair Use

What Is Fair Use?

Fair Use is a concept embedded in U.S. law that recognizes that certain uses of copyright-protected works do not require permission from the copyright holder. (See Title 17, section 107.)

Fair Use in Academia

The Fair Use Doctrine is probably the most important exemption to copyright protections for educational settings, allowing many uses of copyrighted works for the purposes of teaching and research. The complexity of Fair Use and its importance in academia make it imperative that every member of the CSU community understands how to make judgements concerning Fair Use.

Review these Common Scenarios to help you determine whether or not Fair Use is appropriate.

What Determines Fair Use?

The following four factors are used to determine if a use is fair:

  1. The purpose of the use (e.g., commercial vs. educational)*
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work (e.g., to what extent is it a creative work)
  3. The amount of the material used (the greater the amount copied, the less likely it is to be Fair Use)
  4. The effect of use on the potential market for or value of the work

* Not all uses in an academic context are automatically considered fair!

Tools to Help You Determine Fair Use

Fair Use Evaluator: Helps users collect, organize, and document the information they may need to support a Fair Use claim and provides a time-stamped PDF document for the users’ records. Developed by the American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy.

Fair Use Checklist: From Columbia University, this widely regarded tool walks you through the necessary steps to determine if how you will use a resource falls within Fair Use. It has been road tested as well: In the recent Georgia State legal case, the court noted that the checklist was a good tool for faculty use.

Understanding Fair Use: Developed by The University of Minnesota Libraries.

Public Domain & Researching Copyright Status

What Is Public Domain?

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and that may be freely used by everyone.

More information available at:

University of Minnesota Libraries

Stanford University Libraries

When Is a Work in the Public Domain?

Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:

  1. the term of copyright for the work has expired
  2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
  3. the work was produced by the U.S. Government.

As a general rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age, such as any work published in the United States before January 1, 1925. Another large block of works are in the public domain because they were published before 1964 and their copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) A smaller group of works fell into the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Use the Copyright Slider Tool to determine is a work is still protected by copyright.

Creative Commons

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. It does not replace copyright; instead, it works alongside copyright.

Content creators may choose from a selection of free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work—on conditions of your choice. CC licenses allow you to easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.”

Conversely, the application of a CC license to a piece of intellectual property tells content consumers that they may use, share, and sometimes modify your content for free.

CC licenses are frequently applied to photographs and artwork, videos, music and audio files, presentations, coursework, ebooks, blog posts, and wiki pages.