Copyright, Fair Use, Public Domain, and Creative Commons

Learn More: Copyright, Fair Use, Public Domain, and Creative Commons


Copyright law is extremely nuanced and complex. However, what you need to know for this course is that copyright grants the creator or owner of copyright control over the use of a work. The exclusive rights copyright grants means that a copyrighted work cannot be freely used by others without the owner’s permission. This is where we run into trouble when we want to use a work for a course. We either need to ask for permission to use and copy the work freely or we need to pay to use the work. As we have learned, paying for a work can cost a lot of money, and this expense is passed on to our students.

Public Domain

Works in the public domain are not subject to copyright. They can be freely used to create new materials. Works enter the public domain when copyright expires, copyright is not formally maintained, the work was never entitled to protection, or the creator dedicates their work to the public domain before copyright expiration.

Fair Use

Certain exceptions and limitations to copyright exist, including “fair use.” You can criticize, parody, or make accessible works without infringing copyright. Fair use in the United States considers the following: 1. the purpose and character of use, 2. the nature of the copyrighted work, 3. the amount and substantiality of portion taken, 4. the effect and use upon potential market.

Whether or not something falls under fair use is decided by the courts on a case by case basis. There are no strict rules for fair use, only loose guidelines. When using something for an educational purpose, fair use tends to be interpreted broadly. However, you really need to understand how fair use works in order to determine if your use applies.

The Harper College Copyright Tutorial (Links to an external site.) has an excellent step-by-step guide to determining if you can use something in class.

Creative Commons

Here is more information from the Creative Commons website:

Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. Our legal tools help those who want to encourage reuse of their works by offering them for use under generous, standardized terms; those who want to make creative uses of works; and those who want to benefit from this symbiosis. Our vision is to help others realize the full potential of the internet. CC has affiliates all over the world (Links to an external site.) who help ensure our licenses work internationally and who raise awareness of our work.

Although Creative Commons is best known for its licenses, our work extends beyond just providing copyright licenses. CC offers other legal and technical tools that also facilitate sharing and discovery of creative works, such as CC0 (Links to an external site.), a public domain dedication for rights holders who wish to put their work into the public domain before the expiration of copyright, and the Public Domain Mark (Links to an external site.), a tool for marking a work that is in the worldwide public domain. Creative Commons licenses and tools were designed specifically to work with the web, which makes content that is offered under their terms easy to search for, discover, and use.

For more about CC licenses (Links to an external site.) see the Creative Commons website.


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OER Subject Librarian Toolkit Copyright © by Jennifer Beamer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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