Using copyrighted content
Copyright is a bundle of five rights that includes copying, adapting, or sharing someone else’s work. You need permission from the copyright owner to do any of these things, unless fair use or another exception under copyright law applies.
Fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law allow use of copyrighted materials on a limited basis for specific purposes without permission of the copyright holder. The law as written is brief and general. There are no black and white rules; fair use assessments by the courts involve a holistic assessment of four factors (see below, under “How to determine whether a use is fair”). So just because your use is educational, or you’re only using a small amount, it is not necessarily a fair use under the law.
To examine whether fair use applies in using images or text from the web or other sources, consider these four factors, which are written into copyright law:
- 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.
- 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
- 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 four-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.
Recent court cases have emphasized two key questions:
- Does the use transform the material, by using it for a different purpose?
- Was the amount taken appropriate to the new purpose? (Did you only take the amount you needed for your purpose?)
If you can answer a clear ‘yes’ to both questions, you generally should have a strong fair use case.
Here are some suggestions:
- Place the image in a new context or use it for a new purpose
- Use lower resolution or thumbnail versions where possible
- Use only the parts of the image needed for the purpose
- Use photographs of 2-D public domain works (like a painting), which are usually not protected by copyright
- Use photographs of buildings taken from a public place (buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted)
Additional laws may apply to photographs of people. Rights of privacy or publicity, which are state and/or federal laws, limit the use of a person’s likeness. To avoid any problems:
- Use photographs of people taken in larger public scenes, and avoid photographs of famous people, or people engaging in private activities
To find images you can use without a fair use case or asking permission:
- Search Creative Commons – use “Find CC Licensed works”
- Use Google Advanced Image Search and look for “usage rights” limit – filter by “free to use or share”
- Wikipedia’s public domain image resources: List of sites with public domain images
- You may be able to pay a fee to the rights holder in order to use material.
- For a general guide of the permissions process, go to this Stanford University Libraries page.
- 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 (e.g.music or film) consult the University of Texas permissions page.
- Read captions and collection description
- You can rely on fair use even if the site says “all rights reserved” but does not specify anything about reuse of material.
Most databases and electronic journals 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, which means you may not be able to rely on fair use if you want to use these materials. Information on license terms for specific products can be found in Vera. Click the orange button associated with a title, if present, and find a description at the top of the search results screen.
- 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.
- to an open access environment: prohibited.
- to an access-controlled environment: may or may not be allowed.
- Contact the firstname.lastname@example.org to determine whether the e-journal or database from which you wish to post content allows it.
Why bother citing images since on the web no one seems to? Citing your source is critical to avoid plagiarism (using someone else’s work without giving them credit), which is a serious form of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism is considered a serious offense and is handled by university processes. See more about citing here.
Citing your source, however, is not enough to protect you from the legal issue of copyright infringement.
Citations can be formatted according to the citation style you are using (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style).
Include as much of the following in your citation as can be easily determined from the source:
- creator’s name (e.g. the photographer)
- title of the work
- location of the work (museum, library or owning institution if known)
- date work was created
- copyright owner, if known (please note, this may not be the original creator)
- source – where you found the image
- Questions? Contact us: email@example.com
- Try our self-teaching fair use web-based quiz
- See our podcasts & videos on copyright & fair use
- See our YouTube channel with talks on fair use
- 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
- See examples of how fair use is applied to various kinds of materials and situations here: University of Texas’s Fair Use information
- MIT Libraries guide on copyright and using images