Fair Use Copyright Laws for Education

by Holly Cameron
Researchers should be aware of the fair use copyright laws.

Researchers should be aware of the fair use copyright laws.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

Copyright laws restrict individuals from using, copying or otherwise reproducing copyrighted materials without permission from the author. Copyrighted materials may include books, publications, films, multimedia works, photographs and works of art. Fair use provisions allow use of such materials in certain situations, including teaching, scholarship and educational research. These provisions aim to balance the legitimate rights of copyright owners to protect their work against the public interest. The relevant laws are set out in Section 107 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now

General Provisions

According to section 107, when considering fair use, the purpose and character of the use of the copyrighted work is relevant. A court is therefore likely to find that there has been fair use if the use was for nonprofit, educational purposes. Other relevant factors in considering fair use include the nature of the copyrighted work, how much of the copyrighted work has been used and the effect of the use on the market.

Establishing Fair Use

The United States Copyright Office recognizes that the distinction between fair use and infringement of copyright can be difficult to draw. It’s not enough simply to acknowledge the source of the material when reproducing it. The Office has stated that, if in doubt, you should obtain the permission of the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.


Most education authorities provide guidelines to teachers and lecturers regarding the fair use exception to copyright laws. In general, teachers may make multiple copies of small sections of books or other published work for educational purposes. Copying an entire book and distributing it to a class would, however, be an infringement of copyright, particularly when the book was available for purchase.


Students and academics carrying out research should be aware of the fair use laws in relation to copyright. Public libraries usually issue guidelines to users and will be able to offer advice on copying or downloading copyrighted materials. When carrying out original research, researchers can refer to other works and reproduce small sections of those works, provided they are doing so for the purposes of scholarship.

Works in the Public Domain

Certain material that is legally deemed to be in the public domain is not protected by copyright. Three broad categories of materials fall into this category: materials where the copyright has expired, materials where the copyright is not valid and materials published by the U.S. government. All works published before 1923 are in the public domain.