Copyright and Fair Use

Some guidelines for navigating this daunting topic.

A quick warning about the contents of this page: this page of guidelines is not a legal review. It is meant as advice only and you should consult with an attorney if you have concerns about a copyrighted work. Most importantly, it's a court of law that decides if something is fair use or copyright infringement and their interpretation, which means:

If you use something without permission that you believe is fair use, you can still be sued. However, assuming a judge agrees with you that it's Fair Use, and you win in copyright court, you can collect attorney fees from the plaintiff. Alternatively, if someone takes something from your website that you've incorrectly or incompletely attributed or received permission for, they can point to you as the source, and you will be liable.

There are risks to everything. Use all copyrighted work at your own risk.

Copyright in the classroom

Video, text, and images in the classroom or behind password protection are usually fine (as long as you aren't infringing on textbook copyrights; this means you are not copying the textbook in your class). For example, you can use copyrighted images in your PowerPoints and on handouts, and in your learning management system. You can show videos in class.

Learn more about the TEACH Act »

Video and images that are publicly available online require you to follow copyright and Fair Use rules. Assume everything you find online is copyrighted and unavailable, unless it says otherwise.

Using copyrighted works

Even if a work is copyrighted, you may still be able to use it:

  1. Find out who owns the copyright and then ask permission
  2. Make your own images (that don't infringe on original material)
    • Data are not copyrightable, so you can always make your own graphs and figures!
  3. Use without permission as long as your use meets the legalities of Fair Use

Fair Use

Fair Use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an illegal infringement and can be done without permission from the copyright owner.

Fair Use means that your use doesn't replace the purpose, nature, or effect of the original work. (The amount you use of the original work can impact all three of these, so together, these are the 4 standards against which you should measure your use to decide if it's fair use: purpose, nature, effect, and amount.)

  1. What is the purpose and character of the use?
    » If your use achieves the same purpose or has the same character, it may not be Fair Use.
  2. What is the nature the original work?
    » If your use has the same nature, it may not be fair use. For example, if you use someone else's recipe as a recipe, it's probably not fair use. If you use it in a painting, it may be.
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used?
    » If you are using a substantial amount of the original material, it may not be fair use.
  4. Effect of the use on the potential market for, or value of, the original?
    » If your use usurps the market of the original author/material, it's not fair use. For example, if your use means students don't buy a book with those same figures, it's not fair use.

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. For Fair Use, you must transform the work by adding something new with further purpose or character, new expression, meaning, or message.

If "transformative" seems ambiguous or vague, be aware that millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent attempting to define what qualifies as fair use. There are no hard-and-fast rules, only general rules and varied court decisions, because the judges and lawmakers who created the fair use exception did not want to limit its definition. Like free speech, they wanted it to have an expansive meaning that could be open to interpretation.

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Creative Commons

Since 2002, Creative Commons has been publishing simple and easy-to-use copyright licenses. There are many types, but the one we are most interested in is the CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0license (opens in new window).

For all Creative Commons licenses bear in mind that the copyright holder (author) retains their copyright and may license their material under other license terms on a case-by-case basis. For example, a photo I shot that I license by CC on Flickr may also be licensed separately to another individual or publisher for commercial use under terms that do not include the share-alike restriction. Assigning a Creative Commons license allows certain uses to anyone, but does not restrict the copyright holder from licensing that content in less restrictive manners on a case-by-case basis.

Public Domain images and video

The public domain contains works that are not protected by copyright and can be freely re-used by anyone. Images and written works enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author (in the United States). There are a number of websites that collate many of these images and make them available to the public. There are also a number of images that authors release to the public domain voluntarily. To find these, you can search through sites such as Wikipedia and Flickr. Another good source of public domain images are those from the Federal Government.

Using government-produced images

Images and videos created by the federal government (government works) are not covered by U.S. copyright law and are considered to be in the public domain. This means that they can be freely used, altered, and reproduced in any way, without express permission.

Even when using government-produced, public domain images, it is still wise (and good manners!) to include a caption crediting the images to the appropriate source.

While government webpages are often a good source for copyright-free images, it is important to remember that just because an image or video appears on a federal government web page, it does not necessarily mean the product is in the public domain. Copyright law states that only "a work prepared by an officer or employee" of a federal government agency "as part of that person's official duties" constitutes a "government work" and is therefore in the public domain.

In many cases, government agencies will use images or illustrations on their websites with permission from the copyright holder. Unless the copyright holder has explicitly released their image into the public domain, they will retain intellectual property rights in these cases.

Government agencies also contract private companies to produce images (like in the case of the Elwha River time-lapse cameras). When in doubt, reach out and ask. Federal agencies with good public domain images that can be used in geoscience education include: NOAA, USGS, NPS, and NASA.

Google Earth and Google Maps images

Many of us use images from Google Maps or Google Earth in our classrooms and teaching materials. Google provides extensive information on attribution and use guidelines. Most importantly, they state that:

"All uses of Google Maps and Google Earth Content must provide attribution to both Google and our data providers. We do not approve of any use of content without proper attribution, in any circumstance. We require attribution when the Content is shown. Requests for exceptions will not be answered or granted."

FAQs and tips

Many questions related to copyright arose and were answered at the Spring 2014 virtual workshop on Designing and Using Video in Undergraduate Geoscience Education. Participants with greater experience in copyright and fair use offered tips and useful advice.

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Additional Resources

Original content for this page was contributed by: Scott Linneman, Zach Schiers, Ron Schott, Al Trujillo, and Katryn Wiese during the Spring 2014 virtual workshop on Designing and Using Video in Undergraduate Geoscience Education. Our growing community of contributors continues to add to these resources. Get involved »