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Fair Use Q&A

Posted By Patricia Aufderheide (American U), Monday, April 2, 2018

Dear ICA,

I’m just starting out my teaching career, at a small liberal arts college. We don’t have deep pockets here, and I’m looking for free-to-use material for student projects. But I’m a bit overwhelmed by the number of different kinds. What is the difference between fair use, public domain, Creative Commons and copyright? How do I know which avenue to pursue for any given clip?

Thanks for your help! Marcos


Dear Marcos,

No need to worry! Here’s a quick breakdown:

Public domain: This is material in which there is no copyright. Generally, in the U.S., if the media was created prior to 1923 (with this date advancing one year every year from 2018), you can usually assume it falls in the public domain and therefore is not subject to copyright law, and you can do what you want with it. The work may also be in the public domain in a few other cases, including if it was created by a federal government employee during work hours, and assuming it does not incorporate copyrighted material.


Creative Commons: These are general licenses that someone puts on their own work, because they want people to use it without their permission. Different licenses have different terms, so you need to check the terms of the particular license. However, you can fairly use any Creative Commons-licensed material, as well.


Fair use: Fair use, a U.S. copyright doctrine relevant to U.S.-based work of any kind, is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment, if the use you are making of that material is different from the market purpose, and you are using an amount appropriate to the re-use. For more information on what types of uses are covered by fair use, take a look at ICA’s Codes of Best Practices for Fair Use. Your students might also be interested in the fair use codes on journalism, documentary filmmaking and research libraries.



Patricia Aufderheide for ICA

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