Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Free and Open Media: Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

Find images, music, and more content that's marked for free reuse.

What is copyright and who has it?

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law. It is meant to encourage creative work by guaranteeing the creator of the work the right to profit from that work. It protects creative works of original authorship* that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression*. Copyright protects such works as literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, including poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

*Original authorship: The original creator holds the copyright permissions exclusively unless:

-they created the work collaboratively (in which case all authors/creators own the copyright)

-they signed those rights away, either through dedication or in a publishing agreement

*Fixed in a tangible medium of discovery means that it has to be physically located somewhere (it can't be an idea, for example, unless it's written down somewhere).  

For more information, see https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html

Works in the Public Domain

"The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it."

-Stanford University Libraries, Copyright and Fair Use  https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/

 

How does something arrive in the Public Domain?

There are four ways that this might happen.

1. The copyright expired : Copyright has expired for all works originally published in the United States prior to 1924. 

2. Copyright never protected a particular kind of work. It simply doesn't apply, so that work defaults to the public domain. An example of a kind of work that is exempt from copyright regulations is a phone book. It conveys factual information with very little or no creativity. 

3. The copyright owner decides to formally dedicate their work to the public domain, thereby releasing their copyright to the work

4. The copyright owner did not follow the required guidelines to copyright the work. Items published between 1924 and 1989 are especially relevant here, as the publisher was required to formally apply to the United States Copyright Office and then post a copyright statement on the work itself. 

What about fair use?

Fair Use is an exception to copyright law and it should only be relied upon after all efforts to secure permission have been exhausted and under very specific circumstances, in consultation with a librarian. "In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an infringement." - https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/

These are the four factors that judges use to weigh fair use cases: 

  • the purpose and character of your use- If you're using it for educational purposes, that will weigh in your favor
  • the nature of the copyrighted work - the more creative the work, the weaker the fair use case
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken- if you only take a tiny portion- just what you need- rather than using the full copyrighted work, that will weigh in your favor. Only use what you need! There is no specific portion that is always okay to use. Some people say 1/10th of the work or 1 chapter of a book. The law itself does not list any specific amount. If you are going to use an image under Fair Use, consider using a lower resolution image that could not be well reproduced by others, for example. 
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market- if your use impacts the market such that the copyright owner can make less profit from the work, then that will weigh heavily against you. If your use does not rob the copyright owner of any potential profit, that will weigh in your favor.

Creative Commons

What's Creative Commons? 

The "goal of Creative Commons is to increase the amount of openly licensed creativity in “the commons” — the body of work freely available for legal use, sharing, repurposing, and remixing. Through the use of CC licenses, millions of people around the world have made their photos, videos, writing, music, and other creative content available for any member of the public to use." 

 

There are a number of different creative commons licenses that you might come across that affect the ways that you can use the work: 

Copyright in the work is waived to the greatest extent possible. This option can act as either a dedication or a license. The work may be used, remixed, shared, and no attribution is required (but remember attribution is required for ethical reasons and to avoid plagiarism).

 

Remixing, copying, sharing, etc., is allowed, but users must provide attribution to the creator, indicate if changes were made, and provide the license and a link back to the license text (for example: CC BY 4.0)

 

Remixing, copying, sharing, etc. is allowed, but users must provide attribution to the creator for any reuse, indicate if changes were made, and provide the license and a link back to its text on the Creative Commons website. Use is not permitted for commercial gain (for example, in any way that the user may profit from).

 

Work may be remixed, copied, shared, etc., as long as attribution is provided to the creator, and any remixing must be shared with others under a similar or same licence (again linked back to the license text on the Creative Commons website).

 

Work may be remixed, copied, shared, etc., as long as the creator is attributed, any changes are indicated, remixes of the work are shared under a similar or the same license (which should be linked back to the license text on the Creative Commons website), and the use is not for commercial gain.

 

Work may be copied and shared as long as there is attribution to the creator and the license is provided with a link back to its text on the Creative Commons website. You may not share any copies where you have made changes to the work.

 

Work may be copied and shared with attribution and the license (linked back to its text on the Creative Commons website), but the work may not be used for commercial gain. You may not share any copies where you have made changes to the work.

 

FAQs and Common Misconceptions

Misconception #1
Since I am submitting my project as part of a class assignment, all the materials I use fall under fair use, and do not need copyright permission to be used.

If you are using copyrighted materials for a class-related assignment (e.g. powerpoint, video, essay) that stays within the confines of your classroom, and the assignment is not shared beyond your professor and fellow students, then yes, it is considered fair use.

However, if you post that assignment on the open web, that makes the material public, and your use is no longer fair use.  However, if your use is transformative and limited to only the material you need to make your point, than that would still fall under fair use.  For other uses, you can consider materials that are free to use, such as those with Creative Commons licenses or in the public domain.

Misconception #2
I am not making any money from my ______ (fill in the blank with ppt, video, essay, etc) so all the materials I use fall under fair use, and I do not need to obtain permission for their use.

Even if you are not earning money for your work, if your work is made public, you still need to obtain permission to use copyrighted materials.  Your use may fall under fair use if it is transformative and limited to only the material you need to make your point. For other uses, you can consider materials that are free to use, such as those with Creative Commons licenses or in the public domain.

Misconception #3

If I give attribution or made a statement that says I do not own the material, I am not violating any copyright rules. 

Citing where you get your information or who the creator of a piece of media you use is is important! But that does not excuse you from copyright rules.  Always cite, but also make sure you are using media that has the appropriate creative commons license, is in the public domain, or you are satisfying the terms of fair use. Saying that you do not own a piece of media (as is common online) does not excuse you from copyright either.