Copyright and Fair Use

Fair Use Tools & Resources

Codes of Best Practice

The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at American University’s School of Communication develops tools and resources to contribute to a better understanding of how to employ fair use, creating codes of best practice for teaching, research and study. Visit for more information.

Fair Use for Colleges & Universities

As copyright law does not specifically address many new situations, fair use - in its flexibility and adaptability - is the exception best positioned to support educators and students. Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 states that, “the fair use of a copyrighted work, ... is not an infringement of copyright.” 17 U.S.C. §107.

Determining Fair Use

Before using a copyrighted work, consider the circumstances of your intended use and the following factors:

  1. Purpose and Character
  2. Nature
  3. Portion used
  4. Effect

Begin by asking yourself questions, such as:

  • What is the purpose of my use? Is my use transformative? Is my use directly related to my educational goals?
  • What is the nature of the work? Is it creative or factual? Published or unpublished?
  • How much of the work do I intend to use? Can I make my point using a lesser amount? Does the portion I want to use make up the "soul" of the work?
  • What effect might my use have on the market for the original work? Am I replacing a potential sale?

Complete a thorough examination of the four factors for each intended use by working through the Fair Use Checklist. A sample checklist can be found in Fair Use Tools & Resources at this page/left.


Compliance and "good faith" are required to protect yourself, your institution, and your students from possible copyright infringement. In order to make fully informed compliance decisions, first determine if a work is copyright protected or restricted by license. A license may cancel out potential fair use rights. If a work is covered by copyright but free of license restrictions, you may seek copyright permissions or explore your fair use rights.

You know your educational purpose better than anyone and are in the best position to determine whether or not your use is fair and in compliance with copyright law.

Copyright protection is automatic, occurring as soon as an original work is fixed in a tangible medium. A work does not need to be registered, published, or have a copyright notice on it to qualify. A safe assumption is that everything you are likely to use is copyright protected, unless it is very old, produced by the U.S. government, or your own work. Content that is born or that falls into the public domain is not protected by copyright and can be used by anyone without permission.

For more on Public domain:

For more information on determining copyright, check out the following resources:

Once you have determined that the work you wish to use is copyright protected, consider the following options:

  • If your use is related to performances or displays, see if your use falls under Section 110 of the U.S. Copyright Act (for face to face settings), OR
  • Determine that your content and use fall within Fair Use guidelines and comply with any applicable licensing terms of use, OR
  • Get permission from the copyright owner to use the work.


Permission may be necessary when using copyright protected material. If you have determined that the work you want to use is not in the public domain, that your use falls outside the boundaries of fair use, and that permission is required

Creative Commons (CC) licenses offer a way for people to share their work and make it available for reuse. CC content is free to use as long as you follow certain guidelines and credit the author/creator. See, CC best practices for attribution:

And for more information on copyright and licensing restrictions, visit