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Copyright and Fair Use: Common Scenarios

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

Common Copyright Scenarios

The scenarios to the right are intended to help faculty and students evaluate fair use. These scenarios are illustrative, not exhaustive.

The examples deal with situations involving:

  • Printed Materials
  • Video Recordings
  • Multimedia Projects
  • Distance Education
  • Electronic Course Reserves

The examples provided in this guide have been adapted from California State University: Long Beach.

Printed Materials

SCENARIO: A professor has posted his class notes on a web page available to the public. He wants to scan an article from a copyrighted journal and add it to his web page.

FAIR USE? No, if access is open to the public, then this use is probably not a fair use. No exclusively educational purpose can be guaranteed by putting the article on the web, and such conduct would arguably violate the copyright holder's right of public distribution. If access to the web page is restricted, such as a content tab on Blackboard, then it is more likely to be fair use.

SCENARIO: A professor copies excerpts of documents, including copyrighted text books and journals, from various sources. The professor plans to distribute the materials to his class as a coursepack.

FAIR USE? Generally speaking, you need to obtain permission before reproducing copyrighted materials for an academic coursepack. It's the instructor's obligation to obtain clearance for materials used in class. Instructors typically delegate this task to one of the following: clearance services, university bookstores or copy shops, or department chair.

SCENARIO: A professor decides to make three copies of a textbook and place them on reserve in the library for the class.

FAIR USE? No. This conduct still interferes with the marketing monopoly of the copyright owner. The professor may place a copy of the textbook, not the copies, on reserve.

SCENARIO: A teacher copies a Shakespearean play from a copyrighted anthology.

FAIR USE? Yes. The play is in the public domain and not subject to copyright protection.

SCENARIO: A library has a book that is out of print and unavailable. The book is an important one in the professor's field that she needs for her research. The professor would like to copy the book for her files.

FAIR USE? Yes. This is another example of personal use. If one engages in the fair use analysis, one finds that:

  1. The purpose of the use is educational versus commercial.
  2. The professor is using the book, a creative work, for research purposes.
  3. Copying the entire book would normally exceed the bounds of fair use; however, since the book is out of print and no longer available from any other source, the copying is acceptable.
  4. Finally, the copying will have no impact on the market for the book because the book is no longer available from any other source.

Video Usage

SCENARIO: A teacher wishes to show a copyrighted motion picture to her class for instructional purposes.

FAIR USE? Yes, since it is for classroom instruction and no admission fee is charged. Tuition and course fees do not constitute admission fees.

SCENARIO: A teacher makes a copy a copyrighted film for a colleague to show in his class at the same time.

FAIR USE? No. The teacher may lend their personal copy of the film to a colleague for instructional use, but they cannot make copies.

Multimedia Projects

SCENARIO: A student gives a PowerPoint presentation in a traditional classroom setting; the presentation includes photographs. Permission was not obtained to use the photographs.

FAIR USE? Yes. The copyright fair use provision explicitly provides for classroom use of copyrighted material. Instructors and students may perform and display their own educational projects or presentations for instruction.

SCENARIO: A student gives a PowerPoint presentation via Blackboard Collaborate; the presentation includes photographs. Permission was not obtained to use the photographs. The presentation will be recorded and posted on Blackboard for students who were not able to view it live.

FAIR USE? Yes. Materials used in online presentations are still considered fair use, as long as the presentation is broadcast in an area with restricted access, such as Blackboard.

SCENARIO: An instructor gives a presentation using copyrighted images, but she has added drawings and additional graphics over the original images.

FAIR USE? Yes. This would be considered fair use for education, comment, criticism, or parody. One must inform the audience that changes were made to the photographer's copyrighted work.

SCENARIO: An instructor is giving a lecture on the Roaring Twenties via Zoom and decides to play part of a song from that era for the class to illustrate a point. Permission was not obtained to use the music for the presentation. The Zoom lecture is being recorded and will be posted on Blackboard for students to view throughout the semester.

FAIR USE? Yes. This is fair use if instruction is occurring.

Online Education

SCENARIO: An instructor records a segment from a television program and uses the clip during a Zoom lecture. The lecture will be recorded and posted on Blackboard for students to view throughout the semester.

FAIR USE? Yes. As long as the instructor is using the clip in an instructional context, and is restricting access to the lecture in an area that only their students can view it, it is fair use.

SCENARIO: An instructor creates a searchable database of copyrighted materials. The database is used as a part of a distance learning course and is available on the institution's server. Access to the database is controlled and available only to students enrolled in the class. The faculty member did not obtain permission to use the copyrighted materials.

FAIR USE? Yes. So long as the materials are being accessed for educational instruction and access remains controlled.

SCENARIO: A student is taking an online class in which the instructor has required the final project to be posted on Twitter using a specific hashtag. A student includes an audio segment of copyrighted music (video, news broadcast, non-dramatic literary work).

FAIR USE? No. Since anyone can click on a hashtag and access the tweet, this is not a fair use of any of the listed copyrighted materials and permission should be obtained. It would only be fair use if the project was published on a restricted platform, such as Blackboard.

Electronic Course Reserves

SCENARIO: A professor wants to add a book chapter to the library's electronic reserve system.

FAIR USE? Yes. The chapter may be added if access to the system is limited to students enrolled in the class.

SCENARIO: A professor will be teaching the same course for three successive terms. She wants to leave a book chapter on the electronic reserve system for this period of time.

FAIR USE? Maybe. It is fair use if access is limited to students and the work is out of print and not readily available. However, if the book is currently in print, then a fair use analysis using the four fair use factors is required.

Common Scenarios: Quiz Yourself!

Test your copyright knowledge: click on the flashcards to flip them to the other side.