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Answer these three questions to help decide whether you need permission to use someone else’s work.

 Is the work you want to use protected by copyright?

  • Consider that copyright does not protect, and anyone may freely use, the following:
    • Works that lack originality
      • logical, comprehensive compilations (like the phone book)
      • unoriginal reprints of public domain works
    • Works in the public domain, including US Government documents
  • Facts
  • Ideas, processes, methods, and systems described in copyrighted works

The presence or absence of a copyright notice no longer carries the significance it once did because the law no longer requires a notice. Older works published without a notice may be in the public domain, but for works created after March 1, 1989, absence of a notice means virtually nothing.

"Freely use" means that it is not a violation of copyright to reuse the work in a new context, but it still must be cited.

If you answered "no" to question #1, you need go no further;  
if yes, proceed to question #2.

If the work is protected by copyright, do you wish to exercise one of the owner’s exclusive rights?

  • The owner of the copyright - usually the author/creator or the publisher - has the exclusive right to any and all of the following:
    • Make a copy (reproduce)
    • Use a work as the basis for a new work (create a derivative work)
    • Electronically distribute or publish copies (distribute a work)
    • Publicly perform music, prose, poetry, a drama, or play a video or audio tape or a CD-ROM, etc. (publicly perform a work)
    • Publicly display an image on a computer screen or otherwise (publicly display a work)
If what you want to do with the work in question involves any of the above (and it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t) then proceed to question #3.

Is your use of the work exempt or excused from liability for infringement?

  • The following exemptions exist within copyright law to allow for using a copyrighted work without permission or license:
    • Fair use
    • Library’s special rights (unlikely to apply here)
    • Educational performances and displays
  • A copyright holder may also explicitly grant permissions (particularly, online) for use of his or her work under a Creative Commons License.  Learn more about Creative Commons.

If one of these exemptions applies to your situation, you are in the clear;  
  Learn more about how to secure permissions.

(Adapted from: Harper, Georgia et al University of Texas - Fair Use of Copyrighted Material)

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