Copyright, Fair Use, & the CC License


please note that the information presented here is for general guidance in the ethical use of  information only and does not constitute legal advice.

A short history of copyright*

Manuscript Book mural

East Corridor, Great Hall. Manuscript Book mural in Evolution of the Book series, John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Before the invention of the printing press, books were generally written by hand. They were very expensive and there was no protection for the author’s rights. With the invention of the printing press in 1450, books became accessible to the public, yet another 200 years passed before England sought to control the publication of books with the Licensing Act of 1662. The first actual copyright law was passed in England in 1710.

Connecticut was the first U.S. state to protect authors’ rights in 1783. Noah Webster was behind the movement, and the law was entitled, “An Act for the Encouragement of Literature and Genius.” Seven years later, George Washington signed America’s first copyright bill into law. The Act protected books, maps and charts for a period of 14 years, with the right to renew for an additional 14 years. After the expiration of the copyright period, works were in the public domain, which meant anyone had the right to use them.

Over the next 200 years, copyright protection was extended to different types of creative works, such as musical compositions, dramatic works, photographs, artwork, and later to motion pictures, architecture and computer software. The protection period was eventually extended to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years after his death. In order for a work to have copyright protection, a notice of copyright had to be displayed and/or the work had to be registered through the U.S. copyright office.

In 1998 Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as it began to deal with the sticky wicket of digital works. Today U.S. copyright law protects all creative text and images on the Internet just like books, CDs, DVDs, and works in other media. Most importantly, it is no longer necessary to register copyright or even to post a copyright notice on your work in order to gain protection. Even this little presentation is protected by copyright.

So what can I use?

There are a few important exceptions to copyright protection. First, all government publications are in the public domain thanks to President Grover Cleveland and the Printing Act of 1895. Also in the public domain are ideas, facts, blank forms, words, names, and short phrases (although plagiarism considerations still apply).

Next, the Fair Use doctrine permits the use of a part of a copyrighted work for certain purposes, such as scholarly criticism, teaching, news reporting, and even parody. But there are no hard and fast rules about what is considered fair use. Determination of fair use requires a weighing of a number of factors, including the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the work, the amount of the work used, and the effect of the use on the value of the work. When in doubt, ask the copyright owner for permission before using his work.

Some helpful fair use and copyright resources…

To become more familiar with the doctrine of Fair Use you can read this government publication.

You might also want to read this government pamphlet concerning classroom use of copyrighted material.

For a wonderfully helpful summary of copyright protection periods, take a look at Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States by Peter Hirtle of Columbia University. Note that use of his chart is governed by the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

What about students using photographs from the Internet for school projects?

The uncontrolled copying and use of photographs found on the Internet is a common example of copyright infringement, even when the photographs are being used by students for school projects. Photographs present special fair use issues because we usually use a photograph in its entirely, and use of 100% of a protected work typically falls outside the fair use exception to the copyright laws.

To make sure that we are complying with copyright laws, and just as importantly, guiding our students in the proper use of photographs they find on the Internet, we need to familiarize ourselves with the rules about photograph use and become acquainted with the Creative Commons License.

The first thing to remember about photographs is that just because the owner put them on the Internet does not mean that they are in the public domain. Photographs that are put on the Internet are automatically copyright-protected even though there might not be a copyright notice present. So the first thing we need to understand and teach our students about photographs on the Web is that we must assume that they are copyrighted unless it is stated otherwise.

The next thing to know is that there are several situations in which we are permitted to use photographs we find on the Internet, and they are these:

  • when the image is already in the public domain, i.e., the period of copyright protection has expired;
  • when we reduce the size of an image to a thumbnail before we use it (at least one court has ruled that this is fair use);
  • when we use the image in a project that will not leave the classroom;
  • when the owner of the image has agreed to its use via a Creative Commons license.

The Creative Commons license

In 2002 a private organization called Creative Commons developed a form of licensing for images that enables copyright holders to share them on the Internet subject to certain limitations. The Creative Commons license is not a law. I think of it as a contract between the copyright holder and the public.

It is important to remember that because the Creative Commons license is not a law, it does not alter any provision of the copyright laws. It merely permits the public to make limited use of copyrighted work in accordance with the permission granted by the owner. Think of it as a substitute for having to privately obtain permission from the owner to use his or her work.

There are currently six levels of the Creative Commons license. Here is a breakdown of them:

  • Attribution CC BY You can use and modify this image, even commercially, as long as you give credit to the license holder in the manner specified by him.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA You may use and modify this image, even commercially, as long as you give credit to the license holder plus if you distribute the altered work, you may only do so under the same or similar license to this one.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND The image may be used “as is” with no modification allowed, and attribution must be made in the manner specified by the license owner.
  • Attribution-NonCommerical CC BY-NC  You may use and modify the work, but only for non-commercial purposes, and you must give attribution to the license holder in the manner specified by him or her.
  • Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA You may use and modify this image for non-commercial use, as long as you give credit to the license holder plus if you distribute the altered work, you may only do so under the same or similar license to this one.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND The image may be used “as is” with no modification allowed, for non-commercial purposes only, and attribution must be made in the manner specified by the license owner.

Sources for public domain and CC licensed images

On the Faculty/Staff page, there is a link to sources of images that are either in the public domain or whose use is permitted under a Creative Commons licence. Most of these sites, although not all, came from Wikipedia and have not been vetted, so please review for appropriateness any you intend to share with your students.

Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr's Advanced Search screen
One of the best sources of Creative Commons images is Flickr: Creative Commons. This Flickr site is designed to search Creative Commons licensed images only. You can also search CC licensed content on Flickr’s regular site. Just select “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” in the Advanced Search screen. You will find it at the bottom of the page. See the image to your right.

CC Search

Creative Commons has now created its own search vehicle called CC Search. CC Search accesses creative common licensed media on a variety of websites including Google, Flickr, Fotopedia, Open Clip Art Library, YouTube, Europeana, and more

Creative Commons is not just for images

The CC license can be used for all types of intellectual property, including text, audio, and video. MIT even licenses its OpenCourseWare for all to share. To see other prominent users of the CC license, take a look at Who Uses CC? and the links provided there.

Links to public domain resources

In the footer of this page we have listed a number of links to digital and audio books, music and other online content that is in the public domain. Feel free to share these with your students, and don’t forget to contribute your own sources of freely usable resources! You can use the Comment box at the end of the page.

* The history of copyright is based upon information provided by the Library of Congress at “Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright” (

Return to Top

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien