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Copyright and Fair Use

This guide provides an introduction to the topics of copyright and fair use.


There are few activities you will undertake in research and education that do not involve the reuse of works created by others, even when creating your own copyrightable material. These works may be protected by copyright law (17 U. S. Code), in which case it's your responsibility to use them in a manner that acknowledges the rights of the copyright owner while balancing your rights as a user.

Copyright law was designed to reward creators while also limiting those benefits so cultural progress is not stymied. As stated in the U.S. Constitution, Congress was given the authority "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries" (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, U.S. Constitution). While its best-known feature is protection of owners’ rights, copyright law also includes important exceptions that allow users to copy and generally reuse existing material for limited purposes without seeking permission from the legal owner of that material. One of these exceptions is "fair use." 

Fair use consists of a framework of four factors, each of which must be considered separately when deciding whether your proposed use of copyrighted content might be a fair use. Fair use is used as a defense in a court of law; consequently, only the courts can decide if a use is, in fact, "fair." When applied in a balanced manner, fair use minimizes the inherent legal risk in using copyrighted materials without permission. If not for fair use, permission would have to be sought for reuse of all protected content--a practice that is impractical, at best.

This guide offers some tools and best practices to assist you with making a fair use decision. Find out more about what makes an item copyrightable, what's protected or not by the law, the bundle of rights you receive as a copyright holder, how long copyright lasts, and how to seek permission when you think it's necessary. Whatever the situation, you may contact the library for copyright assistance; however, the decision rests with you, the user.


Note: This guide is provided for informational purposes only. It does not provide legal advice for specific situations. Inclusion of links to external sites does not constitute an endorsement of the sites by the guide creator, MSU Libraries, or Mississippi State University. "It is the responsibility of individual teachers and researchers to learn about copyright and reach informed conclusions, understanding that the primary responsibility for making appropriate decisions about fair use of copyrighted material rests with the individual faculty or staff member." (MSU OP 01.20)

MSU Libraries Copyright Resources