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Copyright & Fair Use

What Rights are Protected under Copyright Law?

Section 107 of Copyright Act (title 17, U.S. Code.) asserts that authors have the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce 
  • Distribute 
  • Display
  • Perform
  • Creative derivative work

However, there are exceptions to these rights laid out in subsequent sections of the law, particularly in section 107, the "Fair Use" Doctrine, of the Copyright Act.

What is Fair Use?

The right to reproduce a work or authorize others to reproduce a work belongs to the copyright owner. (Note: the author may have transferred those rights to someone else.)  However, the rights of the copyright owner are subject to certain limitations, as outlined in sections 107-118 of the Copyright Act.

One of the most important limitations is the doctrine of "fair use," defined in Section 107. Section 107 lists various purposes for which reproduction of a work may be considered "fair," such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. It also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. Purpose: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. Nature: the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. Amount: the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. Effect: the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Fair Use Guidelines

Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission to use a source, nor does it subsitute for verifying that your use is legal under the "fair use" doctrine. 

However, in practice, the distinction between "fair use" and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined.

Fair use typically allows the limited copying and distribution of an article, image, or other information for personal, research, or educational use. However, there is no specific number of copies that may be distributed and no specific number of words, lines, images, or notes that may be reproduced without permission.

In many cases, what is allowed to be done with an information source will differ depending on the individual copyright permissions listed on that source, or in the case of library research databases, the license that the library has with that publisher.  Generally, as more copies of a work are made and distributed, or larger sections of a work are reused, the argument for fair use becomes weaker.

Jefferson University Libraries has not adopted official guidelines for determining fair use. Librarians can help you understand the concept of fair use and discuss the facts of your proposed use.  However, we cannot make a fair use determination for you. Please contact the library if you need assistance.

There are also online tools designed to help you reflect on fair use, such as the ones listed below. If you use one of these checklists to come to a decision about fair use, be sure to keep a copy in your records. 

Works in the Public Domain

If a work is in the public domain, then it is free for you to copy and use without permission. Works often enter the public domain because copyright has run out, although some authors do choose to place their work in the public domain before this happens.

You should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not protected.

  • Do not rely on the presence or absence of a copyright notice (©) to determine whether a work is protected by copyright. 
  • Remember that works found on the Internet, even if publicly available for free, are not in the public domain and are subject to copyright protection.
  • Similarly, any work that is presented in a fixed form, whether print or online, whether published or private, is copyrighted.
  • When in doubt, always assume that a work is protected by law.

Creative Commons Licensing

Although not in the public domain, the presence of a Creative Commons License on a work is an easy way to tell that the author has provided an open license for how you can reuse the work at no cost. 

Attaching a CC license to your work is also an easy way to make your work available for others to use. You can learn about the different licenses and what they mean on the Creative Commons website linked above. These licenses outline different levels of accessibility, and let users know if a work may be used with only attribution if the work must be used only for non-commercial purposes if derivative works are allowed and if those works must be similarly shared.




The information presented in this guide is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.  Matters of law are subject to interpretation, and University Counsel is the source of authoritative information for Thomas Jefferson University. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to Thomas Jefferson University, please contact the Office of University Counsel. Copies of TJU Policies can also be accessed from on campus.

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