How to Use Copyrighted Phrases in an Argument Paper

by David Carnes
An academic paper must credit its sources even if use of the material is permissible.

An academic paper must credit its sources even if use of the material is permissible.

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An argument paper is a composition in which the writer presents a series of organized arguments to support a clearly defined central thesis, such as a grant proposal or a political position paper. Copyrighted material can be included in the argument paper as long as such use falls within the fair use exception or the copyright holder authorizes the use of the material.

Fair Use Exception

"Fair use" is an exception to copyright restrictions that allows you to use a limited portion of a copyrighted work for a socially beneficial purpose such as commentary, criticism, parody or scholarly research. The amount you are legally permitted to use in your argument paper depends on several factors, including the amount of material used compared to the size of the original work, whether your use is commercial, the degree of originality of the copyrighted work, and the effect of your use on the market value of the copyrighted work. Although using a single phrase is likely to be fair, it may not be so if the original work is short or the phrase is central to the overall work. If you are not publishing your argument paper and it will be viewed only by you and your professor, your use will not violate copyright law no matter how much material you use.

Copyright Permission

"Fair use" is an ambiguous area of the law. If you are not sure whether your intended use of a work is "fair," then you should obtain permission to use the material from the copyright holder. Permission might be difficult to obtain if your paper presents arguments that may be unpopular with the copyright holder. Furthermore, the copyright holder may be a publishing company rather than the author. If the copyrighted work contains a copyright notice, the notice will list the copyright holder; otherwise, you can try to locate the copyright holder by searching online. The Copyright Clearance Center website offers a search function that may help you locate the copyright holder if you know the name of the work. If you wish to use an adapted or translated version of a copyrighted work, you may have to obtain permission of the copyright holders of both the original work and the adapted or translated version. If you intend to adapt the work in a manner that may adversely affect the author's honor or reputation, you may need permission from the original author as well, even if he no longer owns the copyright.


If you rely on the "fair use" exception, you must still list the author of the work on all published copies – this is known as “attribution.” If you rely on permission from the copyright holder, he will likely insist on attribution. Even if you sign a copyright license agreement that does not specifically require attribution, the safest and most ethical course of action is to attribute the author in all published copies of your work. From an academic standpoint, you are also required to attribute all sources you rely on in your argument paper. Failure to attribute your sources may constitute academic plagiarism, even if your work is never published.


Copyright generally protects not only original works, but adaptations of those works. This means you cannot use "Star Trek" characters in a published work without the permission of the copyright holder, even if you use these characters in a new "Star Trek" episode that you created yourself. The "fair use" exception does allow limited use of adapted material for the purpose of parody. A single phrase or paraphrase is far more likely to fall within the fair use exception than a series of phrases from the same work. For this reason, avoid paraphrasing copyrighted material to support a point in an argument paper – quote the passage directly and either rely on the fair use exception or seek permission from the copyright holder.