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Research Foundations: Copyright & Fair Use


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While plagiarism addresses the ethics of misrepresenting and misusing another’s work, there is also a legal dimension: copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works by granting them exclusive rights to copy, share, or license their material. Both national and international laws protect the commercial interests of copyright owners. Photographs, books, articles, songs, web page content, computer programs, videos, or even a sketch on a napkin are subject to copyright.

Interestingly, it is not required that a work be registered in order to be copyrighted. However, copyright holders who register their work with an official copyright office will have the strongest legal protections. It is safest to assume that most content you come across is copyrighted, with the following exceptions:

  • works of the United State government
  • works whose copyright has expired (public domain)
  • short phrases, titles of works, and ideas (not fixed in tangible form)
  • basic facts (unless arranged in a novel way, for example a database or creative list)
  • works assigned a Creative Commons license (we will discuss this on the next page)

Do you want to know more about copyright? Click on these links below:

Fair Use

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With all of these legal restrictions in place, you may wonder how exactly information is shared without contacting the creator each time. A common mechanism relevant to academics is the fair use exemption. This allows for the educational usage of copyrighted material if the user meets certain conditions commonly referred to as the “four factors”. The fair use exemption allows a student to include properly documented quotations, summaries, charts, or media within a research paper or presentation. Similarly, a professor may present and analyze short pieces of a work in the classroom under this exemption.

Below is a list of the four factors with simplified examples in favor of using a work under the fair use exemption.

  1. Purpose and character of the work (educational, nonprofit, etc.)
  2. Nature of the work (artistic, imaginative, etc.)
  3. Amount of the work reproduced (short excerpt vs. entire work)
  4. Effect on the market (financial impact on copyright holder)

Curious about fair use? View these links below: