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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Copyright and Fair Use

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.


Intellectual property is “creations of the mind” (World Intellectual Property Organization). They result from your hard work developing new technologies, products, and information. Intellectual property is protect by patents for new inventions, trademarks for product logos and symbols, and copyright for creative, artistic, and intellectual expression. These protections give the creators of intellectual property certain legal rights for the use of their creations.

In information literacy, we are concerned with copyright because it protects authors, artists, and musicians which represents the majority of the materials we will use in academic research. Copyright is not something for which you need to apply. It is granted automatically when your creations is "fixed in a tangible medium" (U.S. Copyright Office). That means when you finish writing your research paper, it is protected by copyright. When you hit "post" on a blog entry, it is copyrighted. When you snap a picture, it is copyrighted. If you have the world's best song in your head, it is not copyrighted until you record it.

Copyright allows the copyright holder to make money from the work, create derivative works, and perform the work in public among other things, and it gives them legal protection from those who would use their work without permission to do so (U.S. Copyright Office). Violating copyright is breaking the law, and you can be sued damages!

Copyright can be assigned to others. If you wrote an article about the research you did on Western Tanagers and want to get it published in a prestigious biology journal, you may have to give your copyright to them in order to get your article published in their journal. All the protections and privileges of copyright pass to the publisher's of the journal.

Terms of use agreements ares another way you may be required to give up your copyright. Most web services like Twitter and Facebook require your to agree to their terms of use prior to using their websites. We usually click on "Agree" without even reading the terms of service. You could be giving up your copyright or granting the service provider permission to use your intellectual property as they see fit. This is from Twitter's terms of service agreement:

"[Y]ou grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods now known or later developed (for clarity, these rights include, for example, curating, transforming, and translating)" (Twitter Terms of Service).

Fair Use

Copyright law would imply that if you wrote a paper with 10 different citations that you would need to contact the authors of all of those works and ask them for permission to quote or summarize from their works. However, there is an important limit to copyright called fair use. It is fair use that allows you to write your research papers without having to seek permission for every quote in your paper.

To discover if your use of a copyrighted work is fair, you apply the 4 factors from fair use, weighing their impact collectively, and make a judgement as to whether your use of someone else's material leans toward the "fair" side of the scale. The four factors are:

  • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
    • This factor favors educational and scholarly uses of others works, especially if those uses are transformational. "Transformative uses are those that add something new, with a further purpose or different character, and do not substitute for the original use of the work" (“More Information on Fair Use”).
  • Nature of the copyrighted work
    • Facts cannot be copyrighted. Copyright protects the expression of the idea, not the idea itself. Therefore, fiction has stronger copyright protection than non-fiction because it is all about the expression. This does not mean that research articles are not protected by copyright. They are. You need to weigh you use against all four factors.
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
    • If you use small pieces of a copyrighted work and cite it, your use is probably fair, but if you use a large amount or all of a work, then you use is probably not fair. However, there are no hard and fast rules to the amount you can and cannot use.
  • Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work
    • This factor is about if, how, and how much your use of another's work effects the value of the original. If your use denies the creators sales of their work, then the scales tip toward and unfair use on your part. ("More Information on Fair Use").

When evaluating whether your use of another's work is fair, you must examine all four factors. The purpose of the use is how you intend to use the works of others. If you want to quote an author in your research paper, that favors fair use, but if you want to make money from someone else's work, that favors copyright and you would need to get permission and perhaps pay a licensing fee to use it.

Watch both of the videos to the right to improve your understanding of copyright, fair use, and plagiarism.

Read through these few examples of plagiarism versus copyright from Auburn University to deepen your understanding. Then read this story about a university president and answer the poll below.


What do you think about this university president's use of the work of another?
This is plagiarism: 5 votes (29.41%)
This is a copyright violation: 2 votes (11.76%)
This is both: 6 votes (35.29%)
This is neither: 4 votes (23.53%)
Total Votes: 17

Fair Use Video from the US Copyright Office

Fred Haber from Copyright Clearance Center talks about Plagiarism v. Copyright

Works Cited

“More Information on Fair Use.” U.S. Copyright Office, Accessed 23 July 2021.

Twitter Terms of Service. Accessed 23 July 2021.

U.S. Copyright Office. Circular 1: Copyright Basics. U.S. Copyright Office, Dec. 2019. Zotero,

World Intellectual Property Organization. About IP. n.d.,