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Provides an overview of copyright basics, fair use, permission requests, and using copyrighted material for teaching (face-to-face and online).

How can you use copyrighted works?

If you need to copy, distribute, perform and adapt works under copyright protection, copyright law requires you to get permissions from the copyright holder with a few exceptions including Fair Use and exemptions for classroom teaching. Also, citing the source is always an ethic requirement for using other people's work (see Citing Sources guide).

Here is the workflow to determine if you need to request permission from copyright holders and how to do so.
(See Use for Teaching tab if you need to reuse materials in your classroom or online courses.)

The workflow is explained in the boxes below.

Step 1: Is it licensed?

Many creators/authors choose to make their work freely available to use through open access licenses. A common means to do this is through a Creative Commons License (e.g. PLOSOne artilce CC license shown below ) . Publishers may provide options of their customized license too (e.g. ACS AuhorChoice license shown below) .

PLOSOne CC License




ACS AuthorChoice license example




Locate these licenses via the links with the articles and examine the terms carefully before using an open access work. Ensure you follow the terms.

As an example, the comparison below demonstrate the difference among various types of Creative Commons License.

CC License Comparison

How To Attribute Creative Commons Photos by Foter, Used under  CC by-sa 2.5-ca


Publisher customized license may include more restrictions. For example, the ACS AuhorChoice license prohibits "The inclusion or incorporation of article content in other works or services (other than normal quotations with an appropriate citation) that is then available for sale or licensing, for a fee;" Read the license carefully before you use the material with customized license.

Last, the license may specify how the attribution should be specified. (e.g.Best Practices for Attribution from Creative Commons )

Step 2: Is it Copyrighted?

If NO specific licenses and/or public domain notices are found with the work, it is safer to assume that the work is still under copyright protection, even without the "©" copyright disclaimer, unless the work was registered or published in the U.S. before 1923 (i.e. in public domain). 

To identify Copyright Owner,

  • Check the copyright statement if available. e.g. "© 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved." This statement means the publishing company Springer Nature owns the copyright. You need to seek for their permission to reuse.
  • If no copyright statement was identified, contact the author is another option to find out the copyright owner. If the author/creator has not transferred the copyright to others, they are the copyright holders.
  • For those work that copyright owners are difficult to identify, see finding copyright owners box on the right for additional resources.

Step 3: Does Fair Use Apply?

Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and teaching.

However, using it for educational purpose is not equal to automatic qualification as fair use.

U.S. Copyright Law set forth four factors that all need to be considered when qualifying a fair use.

Four Factors in Determining Fair Use
Factors Weighing in favor of fair use Weighing against fair use
Purpose & Character of Use

Educational, non-profit, and personal uses

Transformative (resulting in an entirely new work or using for a new and different purpose)

Commercial use (but not automatically defeat a fair use claim)
Nature of Copyrighted work

Published works and factual

Non-fiction works

Unpublished works

Highly creative works

Amount and Substantiality Less proportion (not just quantity but also qualitatively assess, i.e. if being the "heart of the work")  More proportion (no absolute limits outlined in the law)
Effect Upon the Potential Market

No economic harm to the copyright owner 

No negative impact on potential market and potential value of the work

Resulting in economic harm or effecting on potential market and value of the work

All four factors need to be considered together in balance. It's not all or nothing. Even if a use contains all elements in favor, it may still not qualified as fair use. See more discussion and examples about the four factors in the resources listed in the box Determining Fair Use on the right side.

The final answer to the justification eventually depends upon the jurisdiction if the case escalates to a legal case. Therefore, you always need to gauge the risk level that you are comfortable to take. Here are some general examples of risk levels (From:Teaching Our Faculty: Developing Copyright and Scholarly Communication Outreach Programs,” by J. Duncan, S. K. Clement, and B. Rozum, 2013, in S. Davis-Kahl and M. K. Hensley (Eds.), Common ground at the nexus of information literacy and scholarly communication).

  • High risk: Scan entire book; post to open web; Mass email to your entire class 
  • Some risk: Post in course management systems only accessible by registered students; screen movies, stream media for class use; share for scholarly purposes
  • Low risk: licensed use, requested permission, classroom exemption

For more discussion and examples in teaching and research context, please see Chapter 4 of the IP Handbook linked below.

Step 4: Ask for permission from copyright holders

Obtaining permission from copyright holders is also called licensing. By giving you the permission to use, the copyright owner grants you a license to use their work in a specific manner. What's not granted to you is the copyright to the work.

Depending on the copyright holders' policies and preference, the permission can be free or with a fee.

To request for permission, make sure that your request includes:

  • the scope of how you intend to use the work (e.g. publishing in a journal article, a thesis/dissertation, presenting in a conference presentation or poster, making a presentation available online etc. )
  • the extent of how much of the work you intend to use (e.g. a figure or a table, a paragraph or an image etc. )
  • all the rights you anticipate needing and alternative formats (e.g. print, online, optical discs etc. )
  • special notes on noncommercial, educational purposes etc.


Options for requesting permissions:

  1. For materials with copyright owned by publishers:
    1. Look for the publishers' reuse policies for thesis and dissertations on their website and follow their instruction. (e.g. IEEE Reuse Permissions FAQ. or ACS FAQ about Copyright. )
    2. Major publishers provide services via the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) form linked on the article page as "RightsLink" or "Rights & Permission" etc. Make sure you save the confirmation email. See an example in the figures below.
      ACS RightLinkCopyright Clearance Center permission request form
    3. Some publishers may provide online forms or contact email on the reuse policy page. (e.g. Taylor & Francis Books Permission Request Form) . Fill in the form or write email directly to the publisher. The permission template below may be helpful.
  2. For materials with copyright owned by the authors/creators, use the contact information you find with the publication to contact the author/creator directly. The permission template below may be helpful.


Step 5: Keep a Record

Regardless of how you obtained the permission to reuse copyrighted materials, be sure to keep a copy of all permissions and license agreements. Even if you used Fair Use justification, you need to document the fair use determination process.

Having a written record can be invaluable if questions or disputes should occur in the future. Demonstrating the legal rights to use others' work and the effort you made to obtain them is to your best interests.

In the cases that you may never get a response from the copyright holder and/or you may never even be able to identify who they are or how to contact them, it can be difficult to know how to proceed. Unfortunately, no matter how diligently you have tried to get permission, these efforts cannot completely eliminate the risk of infringement should you proceed to use the work.  See Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office 's list of Possible Solutions for when you find yourself in this all-too-common situation.

A note on theses and dissertations at Mines:

The Office of Graduate Studies at Mines specifically requires students who include copyrighted material in their theses or dissertations (such as Figures from other publications) to also include a record of all the required permissions for the reuse of this material; see the Mines Thesis Writers Guide for more information. 

Step 6: Give proper attribution

The license or permission you obtained often contains the direction on how to give attribution to the original work. Follow those instructions. If there is no directions from the license, make sure you include the title, author, source (URL or hyper link),  and the license (with a link to the license terms preferably).  Here are a few examples on how the attribution can be done.


"[citation of the work], © 1990 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reprinted by permission of the MIT Press."

"Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: [JOURNAL NAME] (reference citation), copyright (year of publication)"

"This work, "90fied", is a derivative of "Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol, used under CC BY. "90fied" is licensed under CC BY by [Your name here]."

Copyright and Course Readings

Course Readings is a helpful tool for generating reading lists and has been integrated with Canvas for ease of use. This Course Readings platform easily allows faculty to find a content diverse items from the Library Catalog and direct their students to these items the Library has already purchased. However, when a copyrighted item is not available through the Library, it is up to the instructor to determine if they can upload and share copyrighted material to their Course Readings list. Instructors should use the steps outlined in this Copyright Research Guide to help make decisions on using copyrighted materials. 

The Library can help with this process, however it is ultimately up to the instructor to make the decision. 

Tools - licensing determination

Finding Copyright Owners

For those works that are difficult to identify copyright owners, these additional resources may be helpful.

Determining Fair Use