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Copyright and Fair Use: Copyright Law

This subject guide provides a general introduction to copyright and fair use.


The purpose of this guide is to provide faculty, staff, and students at South Texas College with a basic understanding of copyright law and fair use.

While copyright issues can be complex, everyone needs to understand the basics. Failure to comply with copyright law can lead to substantial legal penalties for both you and the college. 

This guide also includes copyright and fair use compliance guidelines for faculty.

Copyright Symbol

Plagiarism and Copyright

Plagiarism is the presentation of someone else's ideas or work as one's own without crediting the source. It is a form of academic dishonesty that is penalized by the South Texas College Student Code of Conduct. Plagiarism can have severe consequences, such as academic suspension or expulsion. In addition, where the stolen work is protected by copyright, the act of plagiarism can be a violation of copyright law. Works that are no longer protected by copyright should still be properly cited to avoid plagiarism.

Authors should be aware of the general guidelines concerning plagiarism:

  • All words taken verbatim from any source must be properly documented. This includes placing short texts in quotation marks and longer texts in an indented, free-standing block form.
  • Many writers attempt to avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing in their own words. However, if the idea or information is not public knowledge, the original source must be credited.
  • Common knowledge is considered to be in the public domain and does not need to be cited.
  • Information that is obtained from another work must be identified by a reference citation that allows the reader to track down the original source. Authors should choose a citation style to document their sources.
  • If you are unsure about a specific situation, it’s always a good idea to use caution and cite the source where you found the information.

Find more information at University of Wisconsin.

Understanding Copyright, Public Domain, and Fair Use

Copyright Law Defined

Copyright law, as defined in Title 17 of the United States Code, protects "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" for a limited period. Copyright protection includes, for instance, the legal right to publish and sell literary, artistic, or musical work, and copyright protects authors, publishers and producers, and the public.  Copyright applies both to traditional media (books, records, etc.) and to digital media (electronic journals, web sites, etc.). Copyright protects the following eight categories of works:

  1. literary works
  2. musical works
  3. dramatic works
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. sound recordings
  8. architectural works

Ownership of a copyrighted work includes the right to control the use of that work. Use of such work by others during the term of the copyright requires either permission from the author or reliance on the doctrine of fair use. Failure to do one or the other will expose the user to a claim of copyright infringement for which the law provides remedies including payment of money damages to the copyright owner.


This guide is adapted from the Copyright and Fair Use guide created by Ingrid Redman at NYU Poly with permission of the creator.