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Information Literacy Modules

Copyright, Fair Use, & Public Domain



(ryancr, Stealing, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Copyright can be an intimidating topic. But it doesn't have to be. This module aims to help clear up some of the confusion surrounding copyright policy. (Disclaimer, nothing in this module should be taken as legal advice!)

Learning Outcomes

After completing this module, you will be able to: 

  • Understand how copyright and fair use dictate the use of sources.

(Common Sense Education)

What is copyright?

Copyright does not have to be this elusive entity that you refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. In fact, under the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8 the function of copyright is to promote the progress of Science and the Arts. This clause protects the expression of literary, artistic, dramatic, software, and architectural works, essentially providing an author (for a limited time) the exclusive rights to written work or discoveries.

You create copyrighted works every day.

In fact, you own the papers you wrote for class assignments, the photograph you took of the sunrise this morning on your phone, as well as the presentation slides you created for class speech. Your ownership of those works is protected by law. Copyright is automatically placed on work for the lifespan of the creator + 70 years if they are original, fixed in a tangible medium and created by a human (unless you enter an agreement that states otherwise, of course). If you are looking to publish any of your academic work (which many undergraduates do), you will especially want to familiarize yourself with copyright rules and regulations.

What does it all mean?

child picking strawberries in kitchen 

(Kelly Sikkema, child picking strawberries in kitchen photo, Unsplash)

Holding ownership of work allows you to copy, modify, distribute, display and perform publicly. It also means that you are not allowed to simply copy, modify, distribute, display and perform other works except under special guidelines, such as Fair Use.

What is Fair Use?

Doctrine of Free Use

(Nick Youngson, Doctrine of Fair Use, CC BY-SA 3.0)

What if you find a picture online or in another publication that you just have to include in a paper? Don’t worry, even under copyright law you may be able to use it. Incorporated into copyright law, with limitations, is Fair Use. Fair Use allows work to be transformed or used without permission and is determined by having an appropriate purpose to use the work (the amount of the work used, the nature of the work used, and the effect of using the work). Often this is embodied in commentary, criticism, and parody. Using an image relevant to your research for example purposes most likely falls under commentary.

Fair Use sounds pretty ambiguous, which is why only courts can determine if a work is used fairly, but here are a few general guidelines for undergraduates wanting to use images or other work in presentations or theses:

  1. Understand why 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’re writing about?
  2. Know that you should only use just what you need and nothing more. Do you need to use the full image or will a cropped section work as well?
  3. You cannot resell or claim work that is not originally yours, even if you changed it slightly. You must credit authors of copyrighted work when appropriate.

Public Domain and Creative Commons

Creative Commons logo

(Umberto , Untitled, CC BY-NC-ND)

Aside from copyrighted works, many resources can be found in the public domain or under a Creative Commons license. Once work has outlived its intellectual property rights, it enters the public domain and becomes freely available to the public for use without permission. Creative Commons licenses allow creators to share their copyrighted work under some conditions. They provide different layers of licensing that allow the owner of the work to decide how others can use their work, such as requiring credit to the owner or prohibiting the work to be used for commercial purposes.


The content for this module was drawn from the following sources:

Kearney, V. (2020, July 17). Examples of summary, quotation and paraphrase . Owlcation.

LAUNCH: Undergraduate Research, Texas A&M University. (2016, April 29). Understanding Copyright as an Undergraduate Researcher. Let Us LAUNCH “U” into Research!

Runge, S. (2019, September 19). Citing with integrity: How to organize sources . Boston College Libraries Research Guides.

Sevryugina, Y. V. (2020, May 20). Navigating science databases. Discovering scholarly literature by using science literature databases. Canvas Commons.


In this lesson, we briefly touched on Creative Commons (CC) copyright licenses. In this activity, you will learn more about them. There are six CC licenses, which each allow you different permissions for the copyrighted work:

  1. Attribution - CC BY
  2. Attribution-ShareAlike - CC BY-SA
  3. Attribution-NoDerivs - CC BY-ND
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial - CC BY-NC
  5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike - CC BY-NC-SA
  6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs - CC BY-NC-ND

Let's learn about what these terms mean. First, go to the CC website and read about the idea behind their licenses here:

Next, it's time to compare the 6 licenses. You can do that by reading the overview here:

For your assignment, either in the textbox in the LMS or in a Word document, answer the following questions:

1. You are an amateur photographer and would like to get some exposure for your work, hosted on a popular image sharing site. What CC license would you pick for your work and why?

2. You are giving a presentation for a class and would like to use images. Which of the 6 licenses will let you use images in this way?

3. You own a small business and are going to make a new marketing brochure with an image. Which of the 6 licenses will let you use images in this way?


Creative Commons License

All of the PALNI Information Literacy Modules are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.