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Copyright, Fair Use & the Library

Learn about Fair Use

Fair Use for Students

Students both use and create copyrightable works and should therefore familiarize themselves with how to use other people’s works and how their works should be used. It is not always necessary to gain permission from a copyright holder to use a work. Within copyright law are various exceptions, one of which is Fair Use. Fair Use is a valid exception for most student uses of copyright protected material;

Section 107 of the Copyright Act lists the four factors which should be considered to determine whether a use is a Fair Use.

  1. the purpose and character of use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

How does this apply to students?

  • Most student use of copyrighted work is for not for profit, educational (course specific) purposes. This work is grounded in scholarship and commentary.
  • Most students use small amounts of someone else’s work around which they build their own works. 
  • Most students use works that are available within their library system or otherwise made available by legal means and do not rob the copyright holder of any potential sale.
  • Many students use other people’s works in new and/or transformative in function or purpose ways.
  • Even when all four factors are met, it is important to remember that Fair Use is a defense and no one factor is decisive. Even when all four factors are arguably fulfilled, Fair Use ends when the work is then accessed by other people outside the educational setting.

In the event that a course case results from alleged improper use and Fair Use is used as a defense, an unofficial fifth factor comes into play. The judge who decides the outcome may consider if the alleged infringement was done in a way that seems wrong/bad. As a student, aim to always have motives that seem good and support Molloy's mission statement.

When is Permission required?

As students completing assignments and projects, you have the right to use parts of other people's work without gaining their permission. If you need to use works for reasons that are no longer educational, or the amount of the work that you wish to use is beyond what would be supported by fair use, or you would like to use the work for commercial purposes, then you need to ask permission from the owner of the copyright.

  • Before doing so, check if the work is available in the public domain. Remember to ask a librarian for help if you need it!
  • Your next step is to locate the owner of the copyright which could be different from the author or singer. For example a song writer may own the copyright to the lyrics, but the recording company may own the rights to the music.
  • If you are unable to locate the owner, you should ask a librarian to help you locate an alternate source.


Here are some general rules;

  • Works with expired copyrights may be photocopied with no limitations.
  • Works created by the U. S government may be photocopied with no limitations unless they contain copyrighted material from other sources.
  • Understanding how much, (such as an article, a graph, a chart, a chapter from a book, a short story, short essay, short poem)you as a student can photocopy comes back to fair use. Anyone can photocopy copyrighted works as long as the photocopying amounts to fair use. The first two factors of fair use are almost always in favor of a student's photocopying.
  • The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law  mentioned that the courts have considered  "reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson" to be fair use. It is also recommended that only one copy be made.
  • Photocopying should not be excessive. Exceptions allowing you to copy more than the suggested amounts and still be able to use the fair use defense include you being unable to locate another copy of the work, and you using it for yourself and not distributing it to other people.
  • The third factor of fair use, "The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole" clearly shows that the law does not encourage you photocopying an entire textbook that is under copyright. By doing so, you also negate the fourth factor "The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work" because the author, or copyright holder is arguably being robbed of possible revenue because of your copying of the entire work. This is further outlined in Circular 21 page 7 where it states that copying should not be used to replace collective works, or be from workbooks, test booklets and answer sheets, or media that is being copied to substitute purchase of music.

We have Copyright signs in the Photocopy Area of the Library

Work Created by Students

In your daily life you create videos, photographs, blogs, emails, and you own the copyright to these things. Throughout the course of your studies, you also create copyrightable works. Some are more obviously creative such as poems, fiction, and artwork. But there will also be works such as class notes, papers, and group projects that may result in PowerPoint creations. All of these are copyrighted. An exception may be in classes where materials are shared between students or provided by the school, such as art classes. In those cases, check with your instructor whether you own your creations.

Now that you know that you own copyrighted material, re-read some of the earlier pages in this research guide and see how it applies to you. Then think about how you would want your classmates, and later your colleagues to respect your rights.


One of the most important things created by students will be their THESIS. 

  • A thesis is automatically copyright protected.
  • The owner of the thesis is responsible for deciding how it is copied, modified, displayed and performed publicly.

How do you use someone else's thesis, and how should you expect yours to be used?

Fair use is the answer to both these questions. Donald Crews offers a free download of his guidebook Copyright Law & Graduate Research: New Media, New Rights, and Your New Dissertation. As Dr. Crews is a founding member of the copyright team at Columbia University, his work is recommended for all students who have to do a thesis. Dr. Crews states that it is best to gain permission if your work includes that of anyone else.

Additionally, while copyright registration is not a must, it is certainly suggested. Your dissertation has to be registered before you can file a lawsuit if any infringement occurs. Most dissertations are being published in ProQuest or in Open Access areas which have their own terms. You should carefully read any contract that you sign. You may want to retain the right to use chapters or passages for further scholarly work such as e-reserves for a course you are teaching, or presenting at a conference you are attending, or even following up with a book on the same topic.

Students can also use Creative Commons licenses to decide how the public will gain access to and use their copyrighted works. Creative Commons has six main licenses with varying degrees of usability such as allowing others to tweak and build on your work as long as they give you credit, or as long as they license their works the same way you did yours.