In our digital age, you'll probably need to use someone else's work as part of a project.

Obtaining permission to use copyright-protected work will help you safely use material without any risk of being sued.

The symbol of copyright is copyright protected which is copyright protected.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright means:

  • the creator of the work is the owner of the material they created

  • the owner has the right to protect their work from being reproduced, redistributed, or transferred without permission

A toddler showing a firm fist. Underlying text reads: I know my rights

The following works are copyrightable:

  • literary — books, pamphlets, documents

  • dramatic — motion picture films, plays, screenplays, scripts

  • musical — music compositions (with or without words), performances, soundtracks

  • artistic — paintings, drawings, maps, photographs, sculptures, and plans

  • other intellectual properties — video games, computer programs, mobile apps

What If The Material Is Not Copyrighted?

If the work you want to use is not copyrighted, then you're in luck! The work is in public domain. This means you can use the work without obtaining permission.

In the USA, a work falls under public domain if :

  • the copyright term has expired

  • the work was published before 1923

  • the owner didn't properly protect the copyright of a work published between 1923 and 1989

Betty White poses for camera. Underlying text says: When you realize she's 98 and in 2 years, she will be public domain

Find The Copyright Notice

You'll need to contact the copyright owner via letter or email to obtain permission to use their work.

The copyright notice contains the details and status of the copyright, as well as the name and contact information of the copyright owner.

To find a copyright notice on a website:

An animated figure of man looking through magnifying glass to a question mark.

Contact The Copyright Owner

Write a letter or email addressing the copyright owner. Clearly communicate your intentions for using the work, and include necessary details.

Flaticon Icon

  • your name and contact info

  • name and nature of your organization and project (non-profit, research, etc.)

  • title and other details about the work, such as edition or volume number, if applicable

  • copyright date of the work

  • exact material to be used, specifying the amount or section(s) of the work to be used

  • audience to whom the work will be distributed or made available

  • details about whether the material is to be sold

You can use this template to get started on writing the letter.

But What If I Don't Get Permission?

A person in suit shaking her head. Underlying text says: DENIED

It's not the end of the story! As long as you use the material under fair use, you can continue using the work.

What's fair use?

Fair use means you can use a work without permission from the copyright owner, so long as it's for a limited purpose, such as to:

  • comment

  • criticize

  • parody

  • teach

  • research

Flaticon IconFair use is a guideline rather than a rule.

If the copyright owner decides to sue you for copyright infringement, it's up to the court to decide if you're following fair use or not.

Philip Fry- Futurama giving a suspicious look. Underlying text says: Not sure if art or copyright infringement

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that helps address global challenges by overcoming legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity.

It provides Creative Commons Licence so that every person and organization in the world:

  • has a free, simple, and standardized way to grant copyright permissions for creative and academic works

  • can ensure proper attribution

  • allow others to copy and distribute

If a work has a Creative Commons Licence, you can use it as long as you follow the specific conditions the owner grants you.

A diagram showing the spectrum of rights, from copyright to Creative Commons to public domain.

Scenario: Alexandra & The Youtube Clip

Flaticon IconAlexandra is a high school teacher. She's creating a free online coursebook for her students to use this semester.

She finds a video clip on Youtube that would be perfect for an upcoming lesson.

There's no information about whether she can use the clip or not.

Quiz

What should she do?

Post it to the blog. It's fair use!

She shouldn't post it. She'll get sued!

Assume it's public domain and post it.

Contact the film's production company.

Take Action

A cat typing on the laptop

Before you use someone else's work:

License:

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This Byte has been authored by

SP

Sara Pirani

Engineer, educator, life long learner