Large copyright sign made of jigsaw puzzle pieces” by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Chapter 3: Copyright, Fair Use, and Public Domain


Copyright is a difficult topic, there is a lot to learn and it can be confusing. The aim is that by the end of this module you will be able to recall basic facts and concepts to improve your research strategies.


The Basics of Copyright

Copyright is the area of law that limits how others may access and use the original works of authors (or creators), works spanning the spectrum from novels and operas, corporate manuals, archives, cat videos, to scribbles on a napkin. There are variances from one country to another, but there are commonalities due to international treaties. According to the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, the function of copyright is to promote the progress of science and the arts.

What is copyrightable?

  • Copyright grants a set of exclusive rights to copyright owners, which means no one else can copy, distribute, publicly perform, adapt, or otherwise use the work without permission of the copyright holder.
  • Copyright provides economic and moral rights to the works.
  • Copyright grants rights to all works of literary authorship. All works must meet a certain standard of originality to warrant copyright. The work must have been a creation of its creator and not copied from another work.
  • Copyright does not protect facts or ideas, only the expression of those facts or ideas. While copyright gives creators control over their expression of an idea, it does not allow the copyright holder to own or exclusively control the idea itself.

Purposes of Copyright

  • Utilitarian: copyright is designed to provide an incentive to creators. The aim is to encourage the creation and publication of new works for social benefits; there are also economic benefits associated with copyright.
  • Author’s rights: under this rationale, copyright protection serves to recognize and protect the deep connection authors have with their creative works. This rationale is founded upon moral rights, which ensure attribution for authors and preserve the integrity of creative works.

For more information about Copyright and Other Forms of Protection, check out this textbook that includes information about OER and Copyright.

The Basics of Fair Use

Fair use is a set of parameters for you and others to use a copyrighted work on a limited basis. Fair Use allows work to be transformed or used without permission and is determined by how the work is used. There are four factors that play into this determination: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the work that is used, and the effect of the use on the potential market.

Only a federal court judge can determine if a work is used fairly, but here are a few general guidelines for anyone wanting to use content in their work.

  • Why do you want to use a work that is not your own? Is it relevant to your research? Does it help explain a specific concept you are writing about?
  • Try to only use exactly what you need. For example: instead of a whole image, can you use a cropped section just as well?
  • Remember that you cannot resell or claim a work that is not yours as yours, even if you change it slightly. You must credit authors of copyrighted work when appropriate.

Public Domain and Creative Commons

In addition to Fair Use, there is also Public Domain and Creative Commons. These items are either outlived its intellectual rights (95 years in the United States) or has been openly licensed to allow creators to share their copyrighted work under “some rights reserved”. Creative Commons provides different layers of licensing that allow the owner of the work to decide how others can use their work, including a public domain tool called CC-Zero. To learn more about these options, refer to this textbook with content on OER and Copyright.


References for Remixed Content:

Bearman, A. (2022). An OER workshop. PALNI Press.

PALNI (2022, June 3). Copyright, fair use, and public domain. PALNI Information Literacy Modules.


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Graduate Research Prep by Andrea Bearman and Jill Noyes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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