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Copyright Law

Copyright law governs who may use original works of authorship and how such works may be used. Copyright law is rooted in the United States Constitution’s Copyright Clause (Article I, section 8, clause 8) which describes the power of Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The Copyright Law of the United States is contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.

Given that the advancement of knowledge is inherent to copyright, there are specific limitations to the rights of copyright holders. At the same time, anyone wishing to use someone else's intellectual work (for example, in a paper or other publication; as a classroom handout; or even as material on a website), must respect the rights of copyright holders. The mix of rights and limitations creates a subjective and uneasy balance in copyright. The purpose of this guide is to provide information that will help educators and students alike find the correct balance.


Fair Use

Fair use, a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work, is a doctrine in United States copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders. (Wikipedia)

Sections 107-122 of U. S. copyright law spell out limitations to copyright holders’ rights.  Of particular importance to educators are: 


Stated Limitations


Permits the “fair use” of an owner’s work without permission for the purpose of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” See the Fair Use tab for the four factors that must be considered in fair use evaluations.


Permits a library or archive to reproduce works for archiving purposes, to make copies for patrons, and to participate in interlibrary loan, all without permission.


Permits individuals to lend, give, or sell copies of works lawfully owned without the permission of the copyright holder.  This is known as the First Sale Doctrine.


Permits displays of work and educational performances in face-to-face teaching and in distance education.


Permits reproduction of works for the visually impaired or with other disabilities without permission of the copyright holder.

Public Domain

Public domain refers to the total absence of copyright protection for creative work (such as a book, painting, photograph, movie, poem, article, piece of music, product design, or computer program). (LINFO)

Copyright law also exempts works that are in the public domain due to:
•  Expiration of copyright term
•  Copyright was never secured
•  Work was published by the U. S. Government

Creative Commons identifies 5 things not covered by copyright in the public domain.


The verb license means to give permission. The noun licence refers to that permission as well as to the document recording that permission. Licence may be granted by a party ("licensor") to another party ("licensee") as an element of an agreement between the parties.

A licence may be issued to allow an activity that would otherwise be forbidden. It may require paying a fee and/or proving a capability. The requirement may also serve to keep the authorities informed on a type of activity, and to give them the opportunity to set conditions and limitations. A licensor may grant licence under intellectual property laws to authorize a use (such as copying software or using a (patented) invention) to a licensee, sparing the licensee from a claim of infringement brought by the licensor. (Wikipedia)

Members of a higher education community may use licensed works (e.g. databases, e-journals, e-books, etc.) according to the terms of the license. Consult with library staff for specifics.

Fair use factors

"Four factors" are considered in all fair use evaluations. They are:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the work wherein creative or expressive copyrighted works are given greater protection than works of a factual nature
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

These four factors are not meant to be exclusive and must be examined together.

The statute does not indicate how much weight is to be accorded each factor. Historically the courts have placed the most emphasis on "effect", while the "nature" of the copyrighted work is usually considered to be the least important factor.

Best Practices

Libraries strive to follow the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use as established by the Association of Research Libraries (see document below).

The Code deals with such common questions in higher education as:

When and how much copyrighted material can be digitized for student use? And should video be treated the same way as print?

How can libraries’ special collections be made available online?

Can libraries archive websites for the use of future students and scholars?

Challenges of fair use

This report summarizes research into the current application of fair use to meet the missions of U.S. academic and research libraries. Sixty-five librarians were asked about their employment of fair use in five key areas of practice: support for teaching and learning, support for scholarship, preservation, exhibition and public outreach, and serving disabled communities.

Interviewees reported a strong commitment to obeying copyright law; rarely concerned about their own liability, librarians primarily felt responsible for ensuring their institutions were in compliance with the law. Practice varied considerably, from a rigid permissions culture to ample employment of fair use.

Guidelines for classroom copying of books and periodicals

The following information summarizes the U.S. Copyright Office’s Circular 21: Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians:

Single Copies of Print Materials:

  • A single chapter from a book (5% of work for in print; 10% of work for out of print).
  • A single article from a journal issue or newspaper.
  • A short story, essay, or poem from an individual work.
  • A chart, diagram, graph, drawing, cartoon, or picture from a book, journal, magazine, or newspaper.

Multiple Copies of Print Materials for Classroom Use:

Permissible When:

  • Copying meets the following tests of brevity:
    a. Poetry: A complete poem if less than 250 words and if printed on not more than two pages or, from a longer poem, an excerpt of not more than 250 words.
    b. Prose: Either a complete article, story or essay of less than 2,500 words, or an excerpt from any prose work of not more than 1,000 words or 10% of the work, whichever is less, but in any event a minimum of 500 words.
    c. Illustration: One chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon or picture per book or per periodical issue. 
  • Copying meets the following tests of spontaneity:
    a. Copying is at the instance and inspiration of the individual teacher, and
    b. The inspiration and decision to use the work and the moment of its use for maximum teaching effectiveness are so close in time that it would be unreasonable to expect a timely reply to a request for permission.
  • Copying meets the cumulative effect test as defined below: 
    a. The copying of the material is for only one course in the school in which the copies are made.
    b. Not more than one short poem, article, story, essay, or two excerpts may be copied from works by the same author, nor more than three from the same collective work or periodical volume during one class term.
    c. There shall not be more than nine instances of such multiple copying for one course during one class term.
    d. The limitations stated in "b" and "c" above shall not apply to current news periodicals and newspapers and current news sections of other periodicals. 
  • Each copy includes a notice of copyright. 


The difference between “fair use” and a copyright “infringement” is not always easy to determine. Claiming fair use requires a circumstance-specific analysis of the intended use of a work, based on the four factors. Here are three examples that illustrate this challenge:

Weight of Evidence Favors Fair Use

Gray Area – Opinions May Vary

Weight of Evidence Opposes Fair Use

Scanning three pages of a 120 page book and posting it to LMS for one semester.

Scanning seven pages of a 120 page book and posting it to LMS for one semester.

Scanning an entire book and posting it to LMS.

Why? If the scanned pages are not the “core” of the work, then the evidence favors fair use.

Why? The amount exceeds established standards for acceptable amounts by one page (i.e. greater than 5%). Opinions will vary.

Why? Scanning an entire book clearly weighs against all four factors found in


When Distributing Copies:

  • Copies made should not substitute for the purchase of books, journals, etc.
  • Always provide a copyright notice on the first page of the copied material. The American Library Association recommends using, "Notice: This material is subject to the copyright law of the United States."
  • Provide only one copy per student which becomes the student’s property.
  • Copying the works for subsequent semesters requires copyright permission.

 The Following Actions Are Prohibited:

  • Copying may not be used to create, replace, or substitute for anthologies, compilations or collective works.
  • There shall be no copying of or from works intended to be "consumable," i.e. workbooks, exercises, standardized tests, test booklets, answer sheets, etc.
  • Copying shall not:
    a. Substitute for the purchase of books, publisher's reprints or periodicals.
    b. Be directed by higher authority.
    c. Be repeated with respect to the same item by the same teacher from term to term.
  • No charge may be made to the student beyond the actual cost of photocopying.

Guidelines for internet resources

Look for terms of use on the Web page itself and abide by them.

Always credit the source.

If you are adding the information to your personal Web page, ask permission or link to the site.

If you receive permission to use the material, keep copies of your request and the copyright holder’s response.

Guidelines for multimedia

In 1998, the Conference on Fair Use (CONFU) issued a Final Report of its work. Although never adopted by the Association of Research Libraries, the CONFU Multimedia Guidelines do provide guidance concerning the use of small portions of multimedia works without obtaining copyright permissions. An overview:

Educator Use:
Educators may use portions of copyrighted materials for curriculum-based multimedia projects and as teaching tools in support of curriculum-based instructional activities.

  • Multimedia projects are to be used for face-to-face teaching.
  • The multimedia projects are to be assigned to students for directed self-study.
  • The multimedia projects can be used for remote, real time instruction on a secure network. Projects can be used for after-class review or directed self-study. Please note that technology is needed to limit access to the network and multimedia project and to prevent copying.
  • The multimedia project can be used by the educator for peer conferences.
  • The multimedia project can be used by the educator for a professional portfolio.

Permission Is Required Under These Conditions: 

  • For commercial reproduction & distribution.
  • For use on a network that entails non-student viewing or no password protection. 

 Attribution and Acknowledgment: 

  • Completely credit your sources. Attributions for each work used are required. Include typical bibliographic information: author, title, publisher, place and date of publication.
  • Include the 4 copyright elements:
    a. Include copyright notice, i.e. “Notice: This material is subject to the copyright law of the United States.”
    b. Include the copyright symbol, ©.
    c. Include the year of first publication.
    d. Include the name of the copyright holder.
  • Complete attributions for images must appear on screen with the image(s) used unless this would interfere with an exam.
  • The opening screen of the multimedia project is to state that copyrighted materials are being used under fair use and are being used according to the Multimedia Fair Use Guidelines.
  • Permission is required for using copyrighted works in multimedia projects if the multimedia project is to be distributed beyond the classroom.
  • Alterations are allowed only if those alterations are part of the instructional objectives.
  • Fair use and the Multimedia Guidelines do not preempt or supersede licenses and contractual obligations when and where they are required.

Suggested Limits:




Up to 10% or three minutes, whichever is less


Up to 10% or thirty seconds, whichever is less

Music, Lyrics, & Music Video

Up to 10% or thirty seconds, whichever is less. No alterations allowed.


Up to 10% or 1,000 words, whichever is less


Up to 250 words or entire poem if work is less than 250 words


Up to five complete images from one artist. Not more than 10% or fifteen images, whichever is less, from a single collected work


Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media:

Locate additional information at The Center for Social Media which has developed several Codes of Best Practices to aid educators in making the best decisions regarding fair use:

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication
The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education
Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video
Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use

Seeking permission

Once you have identified the materials you want to use and if you have determined that copyright permission is required, you must identify the copyright holder and secure permission to use the work. A good explanation of the steps for securing permission for copyrighted works can be found on Columbia University’s Copyright Advisory Office website. Links to individual components of the permissions process follow.

Information to include in a permission letter

 Q&A to determine whether permission is needed and a sample letter.

Learning Management Systems

Posting an item to the learning management system (LMS) does not exempt an instructor from copyright regulations. Therefore, instructors are encouraged to follow copyright "best practices" as outlined in the Copyright Clearance Center’s publication, Using-Course Management Systems.

 Note that the guidelines suggested below are based on one interpretation of U.S. Copyright Law. If in doubt, it is always advisable to err on the side of caution and complete a fair use evaluation.



Not Allowed

Web site containing copyrighted material

Link to the Web site via the LMS

Copying and pasting the information into the LMS 

Copyrighted Web image

Must be educational in nature; display in the LMS for one semester

Repeated use over multiple semesters

Article from a library database

Direct linking to article allowed

Copying and pasting the article into the LMS

Article, book, book chapter, or DVD obtained through interlibrary loan or otherwise borrowed from another library

Permission must be obtained

Permission denied or not obtained

Scanned copyrighted image

Must be educational in nature; display in the LMS for one semester

Repeated use over multiple semesters

Scanned chapter from a book

5% of the total work if in-print; 10% of the total work if out-of-print; allowed for one semester

More than the allotted percentages or repeated use over multiple semesters

Scanned article from a journal, trade publication, or magazine

A single article for one semester

Multiple articles from the same publication or repeated use over multiple semesters

Audio files

No more than thirty seconds without permission

Repeated use over multiple semesters

Video files

10% or three minutes, whichever is less

Repeated use over multiple semesters


Movies in the classroom

When you want to perform, display, or show a film, video, or TV program, whether it be as part of a course, at a group or club activity, at an organization event, or as a training exercise, you have to consider the rights of the those who own the copyright to the work you want to use. This consideration must be made regardless of who owns the video or where you obtained it. In order to show a film in a public setting, producers and distributors require institutions to purchase public performance rights (PPR).  According to US copyright law (17 U.S. Code § 110) Federal Copyright Act does not require PPR for face-to-face classroom or teaching activities. This face-to-face teaching exemption allows for the performance or display of video or film in a classroom where instruction takes place with physically present students and the film is related to the curricular goals of the course. 

The TEACH Act amendment to the Copyright Act, codified at § 110(2), permits the performance of a reasonable and limited portion of films in an online classroom. Instructors may also rely upon fair use for showing films in an online course, although showing an entire film online may or may not constitute fair use. Whenever the goals of a course allow, relying on clips or short portions of a film or video for online instruction is preferable. Under no circumstances can the virtual session may not be recorded. Most streaming services do not allow individual members to use their content for commercial or retail settings. While NetFlix permits one-time educational screenings for many documentaries on their platform, each platform is different and it is important to contact the provider to clarify educational exemptions.

Continuing education

on-profit institutions providing continuing education, in-service training, and patient education fit the criteria for fair use.

The Medical Library Association's publication, The Copyright Law and the Health Sciences Librarian, is unmatched as a resource for fair use guidelines in the provision of continuing education. Of particular interest is Section 4.c, pages 17-19.

Providers can also look to the U. S. Copyright Office's Circular 21Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians, (a.k.a. "classroom guidelines") for guidance.

Caution: If the intent of an educational program is to generate profit or if the program looks like a commercial event, ask for permission and pay applicable royalty fees.

VHS to DVD conversion

A self-authored VHS tape that has not been published commercially may be converted into any other format such as DVD in single or multiple copies. There are commercial services are available to perform this conversion for personal content; however, most copyrighted material is encrypted.

In the case of materials copyrighted by Nebraska Methodist College or Methodist Health System, obtain permission to convert formats from the department that produced the resource.

VHS tapes that were commercially produced or produced by any entity other than Nebraska Methodist College or Methodist Health System may not be converted to DVD format without written permission from the copyright holder. In most cases, it is advisable to simply purchase the content in DVD format.

The absence of a copyright notice on a work does not necessarily mean a work is in the public domain. A commercially produced VHS tape, authored by others, is presumed to be copyrighted. There are legal limitations to what can be done with the tape, even under educational fair use guidelines. Why? Application of the four fair use factors argues against conversion of VHS to DVD.

 Fair Use Factor

Elements Favoring Conversion

Elements Opposing Conversion

Purpose of the use




Nature of the copyrighted work



Creative (art, music, fiction).


Amount copied

Small quantity.

Portion used is not central to the entire work as a whole.

Large portion or entire work.

Portion used is central or the heart of the work.

Effect on potential market for the original work

No significant market effect.

Not available in marketplace.

Absence of licensing mechanism.

One-time spontaneous use.

Cumulative effect of conversion substitutes for purchase of the original work.

Digital copy is available for purchase.

Reasonably available licensing mechanism.

Repeated or long-term use.


Purchase of new educational material

This is the time to do some research to learn if the resource in question is currently available for purchase in DVD format or if new, updated, or more suitable resources are available to better support your learning objectives. Use the following resources to locate educational media. John Moritz Library staff can assist you.

Public domain

Public domain is the mass of intellectual property (books, songs, movies, etc.) that is not protected by copyright, trademark, or patent laws and is available for the public to use freely. Reasons a work is not copyright protected include:

  • The copyright term has expired.
  • The author/creator failed to secure copyright.
  • Works of the United States government.

Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. As such, we are free to use these works without permission. Due to passage in 1998 of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019 when copyright expires for works published in 1923.

Additional resources

A list of links to online copyright resources for those who want to dive deeper!

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