Copyright and Open Licenses FAQ

What is copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of rights that includes the right to copy, distribute, publish, perform and display a work, as well as to prepare derivative works. Copyright is based in the U.S. Constitution and serves to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts" by giving authors control over their works for a limited time.

Adapted from “Copyright Basics” by Ohio State University Libraries with a CC BY 2.0 license.

What is protected by copyright?

A copyright protects any original content you create and fix in a tangible medium. This includes not only scholarly work, but also your monthly report, any digital recordings, your email messages, your child's artwork or notes you take at meetings and presentations. Works that can be copyrighted include, but are not limited to, literary, musical and dramatic works; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic or sculptural works; sound recordings; motion pictures and other AV works; computer programs; architectural works; and compilations and derivative works.

Material on the Internet is copyrighted. Look for terms and conditions of acceptable use for images and text you find online before copying and using any content.

Ideas, facts, slogans, names and short phrases cannot be copyrighted. Methods of operations, systems, processes, principles, discoveries and procedures cannot be copyrighted, although it may be possible to copyright the way these things are expressed.

Adapted from “Copyright Basics” by Ohio State University Libraries with a CC BY 2.0 license.

What is the public domain?

Works in the public domain have no copyright and can be used freely. They include works in which the copyright period has expired, such as most works published in the U.S. before 1923, or works which never had copyright protection, such as many materials published by the U.S. federal government, or works elected to be placed in the public domain through a Creative Commons license.

You can use targeted search engines to locate public domain resources. Try Pixabay for images and Project Gutenberg for text-based resources.

Adapted from “Copyright Basics” by Ohio State University Libraries with a CC BY 2.0 license.

What is fair use?

Fair use frequently functions as an exemption to the copyright law for educational and socially important purposes such as teaching, research, criticism, commentary, parody and news reporting.  However, you cannot assume that all educational use is fair use. Anytime that you wish to use copyrighted material without permission you should evaluate all of the four fair use 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.

It can be difficult to determine if your intended use fits within the limitations of the fair use statute. After reviewing the four factors, you must make your best judgement. However, only a judge in a lawsuit can tell you whether your usage is considered fair use.

Adapted from “Copyright Basics” by Ohio State University Libraries with a CC BY 2.0 license.

I heard that fair use shelters educational use, borrowing up to a specific percentage of the work, etc.?

The following statements address common fair use myths.

  • Not all educational use is fair use.
  • Fair use cannot be determined or guaranteed by the usage of a specific fraction or percentage of a copyrighted work. Instead, ask yourself whether you are using the “heart of the work” and evaluate each of the fair use factors before weighing them together and making a decision.
  • Not all commercial use precludes fair use.
  • Not every use is transformative.
  • Socially-useful does not automatically mean fair use.
  • It is possible to have fair use even when a permissions scheme exists.

Adapted from “Copyright Basics” by Ohio State University Libraries with a CC BY 2.0 license.

What are open educational resources (OERs)?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. However, there is no standard definition of OER. The OER label can mean a lot of things, from “free to link to and read” to “free to download, edit, remix and reuse.”  Be sure you know what is allowed before you use an OER. 

From “Education/OER” by Creative Commons under a CC BY 4.0 license. 

What are Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons helps to define the spectrum of open resources by providing free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work—on conditions of your choice.

You can read about the individual licenses at

If you have a question about copyright or open resources that you don’t see listed here, please visit our partner, Copyright Services, out of University Libraries. Copyright Services has additional training resources, can answer any questions and is even available for consultations.