Using Copyrighted Works

As researchers, we use other people’s works as building blocks to our own research. Before using a work, ask yourself the following questions.


Is the work protected by copyright?

The first thing to do when using someone else’s work is to determine if it is still protected by copyright. If the work was published in the United States prior to 1929 then the work is in the public domain and can be used without seeking permission. If the work was published from 1929 to the present time then the work may be protected by copyright. Check the copyright duration chart to see if the work is still protected. Remember that a work is protected under the U.S. Copyright law for 70 years after the death of the author. Also, if the work is produced by the U.S. federal government, then it is more than likely in the public domain.


What exceptions apply?

If the work still has copyright protection, then look at how you want to use the work. Incorporating a work into a class paper and then posting it on a web site can have different copyright outcomes. Always consider that the broader the access is to the work, the more the applications of the exceptions might change.


How will the work be used?

When using someone else’s copyrighted work in your work, determine what exceptions to the copyright law are available to you so you can use the work without seeking permission. Fair use can be applied in any situation and is the most flexible of all the exceptions. If the work is being used in an educational setting, then apply the education exception for either face-to-face instruction or virtual instruction. Libraries have their own exception which allows them to loan books and journal articles, borrow materials from other libraries and preserve the materials in the library collection.


Is permission needed?

If none of the exceptions apply, then permission is needed in order to use the work. It is always a good idea to request the permission in writing and to retain all the documents associated with the request.