Copyright Information for MIT Faculty

MIT Libraries

Most content – articles, books, unpublished manuscripts, tables, figures, photographs – is owned (copyrighted) by someone. There are laws and policies that affect reuse of such content for any purpose, such as putting material on the Web for a course, or reusing it in another work.

This page provides an overview of what content is copyrighted, under what conditions permission is required for reuse of that content, and how to seek permission for reuse if needed.

What is copyrighted?

Generally, once content was put in tangible form, and unless it was created prior to 1923 or is a US government publication, it is copyrighted. There are many exceptions.

In particular:

Copyright may be an issue when dealing with:

  • Journal articles, or excerpts from them
  • Books, or excerpts from them
  • Databases and electronic journals (more below)
  • Musical works, scores, lyrics, and sound recordings
  • Pictorial/graphic works, art, sculpture, photographs
  • Audiovisual works, motion pictures, videos, video games
  • Computer software

Copyright is probably not an issue when dealing with:

  • Your lecture notes
  • Your course syllabi/reading lists
  • The problem sets you’ve developed for your courses
  • The tests you’ve created for your courses
  • Publications of the US Government
  • Published works for which copyright has expired or does not apply, i.e. works in the Public Domain

What about online databases and electronic journals: Can I copy or link to them?

  • Most of these are available at MIT under the terms of license agreements, which determine how each electronic journal or database can be used.
    • License terms generally override copyright law where they differ.
    • Information on license terms for specific products can be found in Vera
      • click the orange L button associated with a title, if present
      • find a description at the top of the search results screen
  • Linking:
    • Linking to a database or an e-journal from a course page is generally allowed, and is the recommended method for providing online information content.
  • Copying/reposting:

What are my “Fair Use” options?

  • Fair Use provisions of the copyright law allow use of copyrighted materials on a limited basis for specific purposes without the permission of the copyright holder. To determine whether or not a proposed reuse qualifies for this fair use exemption, there are four factors to consider:

Four factor test for fair use:

  • For what purpose would the work be used?
    • Nonprofit, educational, scholarly or research use favors fair use
    • Transformative use (repurposing, recontextualizing) favors fair use
  • What is the nature is of the work to be used?
    • Published, fact-based content favors fair use
  • How much of the work would be used?
    • Small or less significant amounts favor fair use
    • Using only the amount needed for a given purpose favors fair use
    • Note: an image or figure would commonly be considered a work in and of itself, weighing against fair use; or could summarize the key point of an article, also weighing against fair use.
  • What effect on the market for that work would the use have?
    • If there would be no effect, or it is not possible to obtain permission to use the work, this favors fair use

Applying this 4-factor test is not a clear-cut process, and each individual needs to weigh all four factors to decide whether a fair use exemption seems to apply to a proposed reuse.

A helpful Fair Use Analysis Tool from the University of Minnesota provides a structure for reviewing all four fair use factors for your proposed use.

This is a limited right. For examples of how it is applied to various kinds of materials and situations, see the University of Texas’s Fair Use information.

If Fair Use does not apply:

  • You can usually pay a fee to the rights holder in order to use material.
  • For reuse of a portion of a book or article, an efficient place to begin is the Copyright Clearance Center, a commercial service.
  • For reuse of content from formats other than a book or article ( or film) consult the University of Texas permissions page.

How can I reclaim my copyright?

Copyright law permits authors to reclaim their copyrights 35 years after transferring these rights. Reclaiming copyright allows the author to make new publishing arrangements, including making the work openly available on the web.

Starting in 2013, authors can reclaim copyrights they transferred (e.g. through an agreement with a publisher) on or after January 1, 1978. Authors interested in reclaiming copyright need to file a notice in advance.

To evaluate whether you can reclaim a copyright, use a form developed by Creative Commons.  You may need legal support to successfully file the appropriate notice.

For more information:

If you have other questions:

Send email to:

Links to other resources about copyright: