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Copyright and Fair Use for Students


Copyright law allows for fair use for students of copyrighted permissions under certain conditions. It’s important to understand how copyright law affects you as it’s a serious business. Publishers and companies spend a lot of money and legal time to protect their copyrights, trademarks and patents. With so much information available online, it’s easy to think it’s all open for your use, but that is not true.

Student examining Copyright and Fair Use

Understanding Fair Use

Fair Use allows students and teachers the ability to use parts of copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder. This does not mean that a teacher can copy a whole book or chapter of copyrighted material and give it out to students. It covers using only quotes or portions of a work in teaching, research, or news reporting without obtaining permission. Usually if you keep the cited portions or quotes under 500 words or ten percent of the material, you will be okay. As always, ask your teacher for guidance. Using larger blocks of quotations is acceptable in APA, Chicago and MLA Style.

Although not all material falls under copyright protection, it’s safer to assume that it is and follow the guidelines. There are several organizations and websites that provide free, open access to primary sources, you may use these resources as needed. Remember to always provide accurate citations to give credit to the sources.

Four Fair Use Factors

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, these are the four Fair Use factors:

  • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes:  Courts look at how the party claiming fair use is using the copyrighted work, and are more likely to find that nonprofit educational and noncommercial uses are fair.  This does not mean, however, that all nonprofit education and noncommercial uses are fair and all commercial uses are not fair; instead, courts will balance the purpose and character of the use against the other factors below.  Additionally, “transformative” uses are more likely to be considered fair.  Transformative uses are those that add something new, with a further purpose or different character, and do not substitute for the original use of the work.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work:  This factor analyzes the degree to which the work that was used relates to copyright’s purpose of encouraging creative expression. Thus, using a more creative or imaginative work (such as a novel, movie, or song) is less likely to support a claim of a fair use than using a factual work (such as a technical article or news item). In addition, use of an unpublished work is less likely to be considered fair.
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole:  Under this factor, courts look at both the quantity and quality of the copyrighted material that was used. If the use includes a large portion of the copyrighted work, fair use is less likely to be found; if the use employs only a small amount of copyrighted material, fair use is more likely. That said, some courts have found use of an entire work to be fair under certain circumstances. And in other contexts, using even a small amount of a copyrighted work was determined not to be fair because the selection was an important part—or the “heart”—of the work.
  • Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work:  Here, courts review whether, and to what extent, the unlicensed use harms the existing or future market for the copyright owner’s original work. In assessing this factor, courts consider whether the use is hurting the current market for the original work (for example, by displacing sales of the original) and/or whether the use could cause substantial harm if it were to become widespread. Source: Retrieved from U.S. Copyright Office


Other Fair Use Sources

American Library Association provides an interactive fair use evaluator to guide you through the process of determining how you can follow guidelines.

Baylor University provides a Fair Use Checklist.

Source: Baylor University

While it’s important that you use authoritative sources, you need to make sure you are using your own thoughts and words to critically evaluate or summarize the research. As a student, you may quote or use a small amount of copyrighted material without obtaining permission under Fair Use Guidelines but use them carefully and always cite your sources.

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About the author

Adrienne Mathewson

Adrienne Mathewson, Editor-in-Chief of Bibliography.com, is an Information Professional with a Master’s in Library, Information & Science from San José State University with an emphasis on information literacy and scholarly publishing. She is a certified librarian through the State of New Mexico.

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