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A Quick Guide to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons: An Introduction to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

A quick introduction to copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons.

It is easy to find creative content and information on the internet. What is harder is figuring out how you can legally use something from the internet. How can you use videos, images, text that you have not created yourself? This is where copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons licensing comes in. You can think of all of  these things as a legal framework that communicates who owns the material and how you may legally use someone else's content.

For a quick run down on how you can use what you find on the internet, watch the U.S. Copyright Office video, Copyright on the Internet. 

Now let’s break it down a bit further by looking in more detail at copyright, fair use, and open licenses. 

A Breakdown of Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

There is no quick and easy way to explain copyright, fair use, and open licenses. People have law degrees to sort out this type of information! We can however start with some basic concepts and definitions. 


What is copyright? You can remember copyright as “all rights reserved.” This means that you do not have the right to do anything with the resource unless you get permission from the copyright owner. For example you do not have the right to copy something; the copyright owner reserves the right to copy for themselves. 

Here is a more detailed definition from the U.S. Copyright Office

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. In copyright law, there are a lot of different types of works, including paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, sound recordings, computer programs, books, poems, blog posts, movies, architectural works, plays, and so much more!

“What is Copyright” U.S. Copyright Office

For a quick break down watch the short video, What Is Copyright? from the U.S. Copyright Office:

Fair Use

Fair Use can get complicated very quickly. But what you can remember is that the doctrine of fair use allows exceptions to the restrictions of copyright. These exceptions include commentary, news reporting, criticism, teaching, research, and scholarship. There are no set-in-stone rules for fair use; rather there are general guidelines. Fair use is determined on a case by case basis, and only a judge can legally determine if a use is fair. 

Learn more about fair use and how to apply fair use by watching the video from the U.S. Copyright Office, Fair Use. 

In general fair use applies to the following circumstances:

  • Short quotations or excerpts like those you would use and cite in a research paper
  • Using something specifically to critique or comment about it in a scholarly manner
  • Images that support your scholarship by adding scholarly value to your text

Creative Commons Licenses

If all this sounds overly complicated don’t worry. This is where openly licensed resources enter the picture. By using openly licensed content you do not have to worry about copyright, getting permission, or fair use. But what are open licenses? Simply put, the “rights” that are reserved in traditional copyright open up, allowing you to legally use a resource in a number of ways that full copyright limits. Depending on the license you can do one or more of the following 5R's: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. 

The most common open licenses are Creative Commons (CC) licenses. CC licenses are legal licenses that work within copyright law. Each license tells you exactly what you can and cannot do with a resource. 
You can watch the following video, Creative Commons Kiwi, to get a better idea of what each CC license allows you to do.

For a textual explanation of the licenses please see the About the Licenses on the Creative Commons website

There are six Creative Commons licenses that allow differing levels of openness. Below is a further breakdown of the licenses with icons and a textual explanation.

CC BYThe attribution license or CC BY license allows reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, so long as attribution is given to the creator. The license allows for commercial use.

CC BY SAThe attribution-ShareAlike or CC BY SA license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

CC BY NDThe Attribution-NoDerivatives or CC BY ND license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you. This license is not an OER.


The Attribution-NonCommercial or CC BY NC license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

CC BY NC SAThe Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike or CC BY NC SA license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

CC BY NC NDThe Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives or CC BY NC ND license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially. This license is not an OER.

You can learn much more about CC licenses on the Creative Commons website. The Creative Commons FAQ page is particularly helpful for detailed information about using the licenses. 


 About the Licenses, Creative CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Public Domain

You may run across works that are in the public domain. These works are not subject to copyright. This means that copyright has expired due to the age of the work (this time varies), or a work may have been  placed in the public domain by a creator. Lastly, if the work is created by a government agency, it will most likely be in the public domain. You may see public domain labeled as CC0.

Determining How You Can Use a Resource

Sometimes it is easy to determine how you can use a resource as the information is prominently displayed either right on the page or next to an image. But what if you cannot find this information?

Here is what to look for:

  • General licensing information. Look for a "permissions" or "use" page. You may find a page that says "licensing" or even something like "How to Use Our Content." Look for anything that directs you to how you can to use the information or content.
  • Look for icons or symbols for copyright or Creative Commons. There may be a general statement on the bottom of the page. 
  • If you cannot find information about how to use a resource, assume the resource is copyrighted.


How to Find Openly Licensed Resources

There are many openly licensed resources on the internet including huge collections of images. Below are some methods and resources to help you find openly licensed content.

  • Use Google Advanced Search. Type in your search terms. At the bottom of the search fields you will see "Usage Rights." Choosing "free to use, share or modify, even commercially" will return results with the most open licenses.  
  • When searching in Google click "Image." In the right hand column click "Tools." You should see a bar with a list of options pop up. Under "Usage Rights" choose "Creative Commons licenses."
  • Search the library's curated list of free image collections. 


Unless other wise noted, all content on this page is license with the following license: An Introduction to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons © 2021 by Rachel Arteaga is licensed under CC BY 4.0