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Copyright & Fair Use

What is Fair Use?

The right to reproduce a work or authorize others to reproduce a work belongs to the copyright owner. (Note: the author may have transferred those rights to someone else.)  However, the rights of the copyright owner are subject to certain limitations, as outlined in sections 107-118 of the Copyright Act (title 17, U.S. Code.)

One of the most important limitations is the doctrine of "fair use," defined in Section 107. Section 107 lists various purposes for which reproduction of a work may be considered "fair," such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. It also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

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

More detailed information on these 4 factors can be found at

Fair Use Guidelines

The distinction between "fair use" and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, images, or notes that may be safely taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Scott Memorial Library has not adopted official guidelines for determining fair use. Librarians can help you understand the concept of fair use and discuss the facts of your proposed use.  However, we cannot make a fair use determination for you. Please e-mail if you need assistance.

There are also online tools designed to help you reflect about fair use, such as the ones listed below. If you use one of these checklists to come to a decision about fair use, be sure to keep a copy in your records.

If you need additional assistance coming to a decision, contact the Office of University Counsel.   

Works in the Public Domain

If a work is in the public domain, then it is free for you to copy and use without permission. Works often enter the public domain because copyright has run out, although some authors do choose to place their work in the public domain before this happens.

  • : This chart provides an overview of how long it takes works created at various times to enter into the public domain.
  • : The presence of a Creative Commons License on a work is an easy way to tell if that work was made available without out copyright by the author. Attaching a CC license to your work is also easy way to make your work available for others to use.

You should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not protected.

  • Do not rely on the presence or absence of a copyright notice (©) to determine whether a work is protected by copyright. 
  • Remember that works found on the Internet, even if publicly available for free, are not in the public domain and are subject to copyright protection.
  • Similarly, any work that is presented in a fixed form, whether print or online, whether published or private, is copyrighted.
  • When in doubt, always assume that a work is protected by law.

Public Domain Images

To specifically find images available in the public domain, you can use the resources linked below to start, or, you can go the Jefferson Image LibGuide and verify usage permissions in each resource.

  • Wikimedia: check item record for permissions.
  • Creative Commons: check the CC license for limitations on use.
  • Google Images: use the tools menu to limit your search by the "usage rights" of the image.

You can also use the "How to Give Attribution" page on the Creative Commons website as a guide for how to cite these images. 

Additional Reading


The information presented in this guide is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.  Matters of law are subject to interpretation, and University Counsel is the source of authoritative information for Thomas Jefferson University. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to Thomas Jefferson University, please contact the Office of University Counsel.