Copyright & Fair Use Guidelines for School Projects

By Shelly Morgan

Using materials created by other people in a school project isn't necessarily a violation of the copyright laws. Students routinely lift images from web pages to illustrate a science project or quote passages from books in class papers. While the copyright law often protects such materials, the act of copying them may be protected by the fair use exception of the copyright law.

Copyright Protection

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, including literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial or graphic works. The holder of the copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce the protected work and to prepare derivative works. Engaging in these activities without permission is called infringement.

Fair Use Doctrine

The fair use exception is a defense to infringement. This fair use doctrine can protect a student who reproduces work for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. For example, if a student is preparing a science fair poster about research he did on a particular drug, he might include information quoted from the drug's package insert. Such copying might qualify under the fair use doctrine because it was done for the purpose of research.

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The fair use doctrine is not a blanket excuse for appropriating another's copyrighted work. Title 17 lists factors that determine whether a use is truly fair. These factors include the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used and the effect of such copying on the potential market for the work. As an example, copying an entire web page for a school project would not likely qualify as fair use.


Although the fair use doctrine is largely silent as to the student's duty to cite his sources, the student should ensure that he credits the author for any material he uses. Copying material without citing sources is plagiarism -- which is not protected under the fair use doctrine. The original author always has the right to claim authorship of portions of a project that were copied. Likewise, the author can lawfully prevent the use of her name if her original works are distorted or mutilated.

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Exemptions for Fair Use of Copyrighted Works

The fair use doctrine limits a copyright holder's rights. The U.S. Copyright Act gives copyright holders the right to sue others who are using or reproducing their copyrighted works without permission. The fair use exemption allows others to copy or display copyrighted work without the holder's permission in certain circumstances. If the use falls under the fair use doctrine, the copyright holder will not be entitled to damages for copyright violations.

How to Know if Internet Images Are Copyrighted

Potentially all internet images qualify for copyright protection. The instant the image is created in a digital form, it qualifies for "common law" copyrights. Common law copyrights come from the old English system of law. Under common law, original works of authorship fixed in a tangible form automatically secure copyright protection. Tangible forms for internet images include digital files, emails and webpages. Therefore, all original internet images in a digital format are copyrighted; the owner is not required to apply for federal copyright registration. Federal registration is optional. The public may still have be able to use the copyrighted images if fair use applies. The fair use doctrine allows others to use the copyrighted work, under restricted conditions and not for profit.

What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.

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