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Using Others’ Works

You may use the work of others without permission if it is not under copyright, or if one of several exceptions apply:

The Work is in the Public Domain

Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright and may be used by anyone without restriction. Works may be in the public domain for a number of reasons, for example:

  • The copyright term has expired (how do I know?)
  • The author has placed the work in the public domain
  • The author is the United States Government

The Work is Under a Creative Commons License 

Fair Use

You may use copyrighted material without seeking permission if the use meets the requirements for fair use. Determining whether a use is fair use requires consideration of four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. 17 U.S.C. § 107.

The following resources can help you decide whether your use of copyrighted material falls under fair use:

Obtaining Permission

If the work in question is protected by copyright and is not subject to fair use or other legal exemptions, then you will need to seek permission from the copyright holder in order to make the reproduction or otherwise exercise one of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner.

Procedure for Securing Permission (Columbia University)

Locating the Copyright Holder

If Copyright Owner Cannot be Located

A work for which no copyright holder can be located is called an orphan work. These works are still protected by copyright and you are at risk of legal liability if you use the work in a manner that would infringe on the copyright.