14 Copyright Law

Fair Use, Creative Commons, & Public Domain

Oftentimes, when students think about academic dishonesty, plagiarism, and citations, they think only about the printed word. However, copyright law also protects the intellectual property of photographers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Therefore, it is important that we also respect the originators of visual and digital media with appropriate attribution.

In Latin, Ignorantia juris non excusat means, “ Ignorance of the law is no excuse. ” The ease in which we can grab images and other digital content from online has created a disregard for the rights of copyright holders, and has infringed on their ability to earn money from their work. Would you want others to make money from something you created? Probably not without your permission. (1)

Copyright infringement is a serious offense, but the U.S. Copyright Law includes exceptions that allow for certain uses of copyrighted material without seeking permission. (12) Creative Commons (CC) was also developed to make it easier for creators to share copyrighted material. (13) Additionally, the public domain offers visual and digital media that are free to use without copyright restrictions. (1)

Fair Use

Fair use (Section 107) is often claimed in academia because it is the most flexible exception and can apply to a variety of situations. (12)However, fair use does not extend to content that is published on the Internet, where anyone can access it. That could have a financial impact on the creator. (1)

Creative Commons

Letters CC inside circle.
Figure 3-1: Creative Commons Icon by Creative Commons resides in the Public Domain .

Copyrighted works are protected as soon as they are created; but Creative Commons (CC) licenses allow others to use copyrighted works under certain conditions. (13) The information that follows illustrates the different Creative Commons licenses available. You will notice that some are more restrictive than others. (1)

Creative Commons Licenses Explained

Person icon inside circle.
Figure 3-2: Attribution By Icon by Sting is licensed under CC BY‑SA 3.0 .


Attribution (BY)


Others may copy, distribute, display, perform and remix your work if they credit your name as requested by you.

Backward C inside circle.
Figure 3-3: Attribution Share-Alike Icon by Rafał Pocztarski resides in the Public Domain .


Share-Alike (SA)


Others may distribute derivative works only under a license identical (“not more restrictive”) to the license that governs the original work.

Dollar symbol crossed out inside circle.
Figure 3-4: Attribution Non-Commercial Icon by Rei-artur e.a. resides in the Public Domain .


Non-Commercial (NC)


Others may copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and make derivative works and remixes based on it only for non-commercial purposes.

“Equal to” symbol inside circle.
Figure 3-5: Attribution No Derivative Works Icon by Rei-artur resides in the Public Domain .


No Derivative Works (ND)


Others may copy, distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works and remixes based on it. (15)

Public Domain Marks Explained

Copyright eventually expires; when that happens, the works enter the public domain . Works such as photographs taken by federal government agency employees automatically belong in the public domain. This means they are free for anyone to use without special permission. (14) Your assigned readings provide more information about the public domain and term of copyright.

Letter C crossed out inside circle with Public Domain.
Figure 3-6: Public Domain Mark Deed Icon by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0 .
Number 0 crossed out inside circle with Public Domain.
Figure 3-7: Zero Mark Deed Icon by Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0 .

While the Public Domain Mark deed identifies works that do not have copyright, the CC0 Mark deed was designed to distinguish works that were dedicated to the public domain and have no rights reserved. You can read more about these two distinctions on the Creative Commons website (1)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to College Research Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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