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Faculty & Staff: Copyright and Fair Use

Copyright and Fair Use Welcome

image of the word copyright

What is Copyright?

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept that grants creators exclusive rights to their original works. It covers various forms of artistic expression and allows creators to control how their works are used and distributed. These rights include the ability to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, and modify the work.

Copyright protection is automatic upon creation and provides legal safeguards without the need for registration or the use of copyright symbols. However, registering a copyright can offer additional benefits, such as the ability to sue for infringement and seek statutory damages. The duration of copyright varies by country, typically lasting for the creator's lifetime plus a specified number of years.

While copyright provides exclusive rights, there are exceptions and limitations to allow limited use of copyrighted works for purposes such as criticism, education, or news reporting. These exceptions, like fair use or fair dealing, balance the rights of creators with the public interest. It's important to consult the copyright laws of your jurisdiction for specific guidelines on using copyrighted material.

How long does copyright last?

This depends on when the work was created.  The United States copyright code has changed several times. However, most works created since 1978 retain their copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Check out this copyright slider (link will open in a new window) from the American Library Association for help with questions of duration.

USF (University of South Florida) Libraries Research & Instruction Video Channel. "Copyright Tidbits: What is Copyright?" YouTube, 13 June 2018,


These links lead to further information on copyright:


teacher iconGuidelines for teacher copies


A teacher may make, for their own use related to the classroom, a single copy of:

  • A book chapter
  • An article from a journal, magazine, or newspaper
  • A short work such as a story, essay, or poem
  • An image, including charts, graphs, drawings, photographs, or paintings

student iconGuidelines for student copies

A teacher may make multiple copies of the same works to distribute to their students if they meet the following criteria:

  • Brevity, see Circular 21 (link will open in a new window), page 6, for brevity guidelines
    • No more than one work of a single author is copied
    • Copies are used for only a single course
    • Educators limit the distribution of photocopied materials to less than nine instances in a single semester
  • Spontaneity: 
    • The decision to use the photocopied material is the teacher's
    • The decision to use the photocopied material is made so close in time to the classroom need for the material that the teacher could not reasonably expect a timely reply to a request for permission

Each copy made and distributed must contain a copyright notice.

movie iconGuidelines for movies and film

In a physical seated class you may show an entire movie as long as that movie was acquired legally, and that showing the film is relevant to the educational goals of the course.

music iconGuidelines for music

Songs: Up to 10% or 3 minutes, whichever amount is less.

Lyrics: Guidelines related to poetry can apply here, or up to 10% of the content.

*As always, these are general rules of thumb.  You may be able to use more, but be careful to assess any use of music or lyrics using the same four criteria of fair use.

Why does the Library get to share books that are copyrighted?

The Library operates under a clause of the Copyright law known as First Sale.  Once an individual or group has purchased a work, they may share or dispose of it however they wish, including lending it to an individual or donating it to a used book store. However, libraries are limited into what we may do with a copyrighted work once we've purchased it, including barring us from transforming it into another format through photocopies, scanning, or otherwise digitizing.

First Sale does NOT mean that a library may:

  • Show a movie publicly just because they bought the DVD
  • Make copies of a book and distribute them to everyone who walks in the door
  • Scan a book and upload it to their website.

When to seek permission...

  • If you've been using the same photocopied work in your class for the last fifteen years
  • If you know you'll be assigning a copyrighted work in March when you're putting your syllabus together in January
  • If you've decided to include a reading that's not in the textbook in your assignment two weeks from now

Or basically any time you plan to distribute copyrighted works!

Remember... A key to Fair Use is Spontaneity.  If there is reasonable time to seek permission, you are required to do so!

Seeking Permissions:

‚ÄčThree steps to securing permission:

  • Identify the rights holder.  If you know the publisher, that's the best place to start, since most publishers have a specific path they require you to take when seeking copyright permissions.  
  • Request permission. Verbal permission is a good start, but you will need a signed letter for legal purposes.  Most publishers and major rights holders will have a template or form to use for this purpose.
  • Keep a record. If permission is granted, hang on to the signed letter detailing the parameters of the permission, and any documentation created in the course of seeking permission.  


What if permission is denied?

Email  The Library may be able to provide access to the work you're seeking through a course reserve.

Helpful Links:

What is "Public Domain?"

After a copyright has expired, a work enters the public domain, which means you may share, reproduce, or even modify or adapt a work without first seeking permission.  

Some works, such as United States federal government publications, enter the public domain automatically upon publication.

Public domain also contains works that are not protected by copyright law.

These works may have been shared by author intentionally for common usage. Anyone can use these works without seeking permission or attributing the work's creator. There are several resources online where you can find works in the public domain.

Here are some links to websites offering public domain works: