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Copyright and Fair Use Resources: Copyright for Students

Resources for copyright and fair use questions

How Does Copyright Affect Me?

As a student you generally interact with copyright in two ways:

  1. The rights you have in works you create for your courses (papers, videos, posters, websites, etc)
  2. The rights other authors hold in works you interact with in research and learning projects (journals, news articles, videos, websites, photos)

When you or someone else writes something down, records a song, a video, or otherwise "fixes" in a tangible form you usually automatically hold the copyright in the material as long as it's "minimally creative." This means that anyone who wishes to use your work must ask for permission first (in most circumstances) and must properly cite it. The same is true if you want to use other people's works. 

Using copyrighted materials without properly citing or obtaining permission can be illegal. However, there are certain cases when you can use copyrighted works without getting permission: under fair use or creative commons licensed materials. Be sure to always properly cite the source no matter where you are getting the material from. 

The Public Domain

The Public Domain refers to works for which the copyright has expired (pre January 1, 1923), the copyright holder has placed in the public domain through a special license, and in certain other cases. These works can be used in any manner without permission. 

Here are some good places to find Public Domain resources:

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Primary Source Sets

  • Primary source collections grouped by topic including history, literature, and culture. Discover photos, letters, sound recordings, advertising, posters, and more. 

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

  • Access the wide collection of the LOC. Check the copyright permissions for each image for details.

NASA Images

  • Some images are copyrighted and some are free to use. Check each photo for information.

National Gallery of Art

  • Images from the National Gallery of Art which can be downloaded and shared.


  • Find creative commons licensed images to reuse.

Smithsonian Libraries

  • Discover online art, books, photos, and more from the Smithsonian collections. 


Citation Styles

We cite to give proper credit to the source and to allow readers a path to the source. 

There are many citation styles, but the most commonly used at Madison College are:

Many of our library subscription databases provide citation examples for the sources they provide, and online citation generators can help when a citation isn't provided.

Fair Use Explained

Fair use is an exception to exclusive rights normally granted to copyright holders and is codified in Section 107 of US Copyright Law. In certain situations copyrighted material might be used without permission from the copyright holder if performing a fair use analysis utilizing the four factors favors the use. 

The four factors of fair use are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Some common uses which are often considered fair use include:

  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News Reporting
  • Teaching 
  • Scholarship
  • Research

Before using a resource under fair use, it's helpful to have some background in how to analysis fair use. These guides provide excellent starting points:

Image credit: Figure 14.1. “Gauge Your Risk” stoplight model. Adapted from “Teaching Our Faculty: Developing Copyright and Scholarly Communication Outreach Programs,” by J. Duncan, S. K. Clement, and B. Rozum, 2013, in S. Davis-Kahl and M. K. Hensley (Eds.), Common ground at the nexus of information literacy and scholarly communication, p. 280. Copyright 2013 by the Association of College and Research Libraries. Adapted with permission.


These do not automatically make a use fair. The four factors above must be thoroughly evaluated before making a determination. Fair use checklists are fantastic tools to use while examining whether a use might fall under fair use. 

Fair use checklists: