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Copyright Overview - Twin Cities Library, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

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Copyright Overview

The United States Copyright Office defines traditional copyright as "a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of 'original works of authorship,' including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works." 1 Unless you own the exclusive copyright to an item you are not permitted to make copies of, create derivative works from, or distribute the item to others—unless you pay for that permission.

For the purpose of education (teaching, scholarship, and research) there is a Fair Use clause of copyright that allows for making and distributing copies of traditionally copyrighted materials without seeking permission from the copyright holder. In order for items to fit under Fair Use, please reflect on:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes - educational use often falls under Fair Use, while for-profit use never does.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work - meaning, is the work a non-copyrightable fact or a very copyrightable creative work?
  • The amount of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole - less is better. Fair use takes into account the brevity of the portion of the work.
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work - by sharing the item, are you robbing the author/creator of profits?

SGPP instructors are responsible for deciding in good faith if course-related use of the copyrighted work is permissible and fair without obtaining copyright permission. Use the Fair Use Checklist (developed by the Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office) to determine if you can share material without obtaining copyright permission. Learn more about Fair Use on the United States Copyright Office website.

Items with Creative Commons copyright licenses provide more flexibility regarding their use. There are excellent sources of open source and Creative Commons-licensed educational resources on the Internet.

For a great overview of copyright, please view the Copyright Basics video covering the basics of copyright, distributed by the Copyright Clearance Center.


1. United States Copyright Office. (July 2008). Copyright basics. Retrieved from