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Ebook Guide

The Basics of Copyright and Fair Use

U.S. Copyright

U.S. Copyright law balances the interests of authors who have created works with the interests of users of those works. The purpose of copyright is "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts," while also serving as a form of protection provided to authors of "original works of authorship."

This balance is maintained by the provision of certain rights to authors – such as the right to reproduce, distribute, or prepare derivatives of the work – and the provision of some exceptions and limitations to those entitlements.

The U.S. Copyright Act can be found at Title 17 of the United States Code. The U.S. Copyright Office also provides information on copyright.

Learn more essentials of copyright with our Copyright LibGuide.

Fair use requires analysis!

Fair use is the U.S. legal doctrine that permits brief excerpts of copyrighted material, under certain circumstances, to be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder. Unlike specific exceptions to the rights of copyright owners, fair use is a flexible standard. Therefore, each application of fair use must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Visit our Fair Use webpage to learn more about doing your own fair use analysis, including a fair use checklist, to determine if your specific use is covered. 


U.S. copyright law and instruction

The copyright statute includes a specific exception for performing or displaying (but not copying) copyrighted works in face-to-face instruction. Other uses may be covered by fair use, but there are limits to how much of a work you can use and still fall under fair use. You will also need to limit access to materials to only enrolled students when sharing online (e.g. D2L Brightspace course site, password-protected website). For uses that don't fall under the specific exception or fair use, you should get permission from the copyright owner.

Book selections

Fair use guidelines are flexible. Using one or two book chapters or less than 10-20% of a book can be used as a general rule of thumb in gauging the fairness of a use in an educational context. However, instructors must conduct their own fair use evaluations when making digitized copies of our print collections available to their students. Request a book chapter.

Learn more on our Guidelines for instructors webpage.

Test your knowledge on fair use and copyright

Fair Use & Copyright Instruction tutorial image with cup, paper, and pen

The complexity of U.S. copyright law

U.S. Copyright law serves both private and public interests. The private interest is the author’s right to reap the benefits of his or her creative endeavors. The public interest is the dissemination and use of works by the public. The private interest is served by the granting of a bundle of entitlements to copyright owners.The public interest is served through the exceptions and limitations to those entitlements as described in Sections 107 to 122 of the law (Title 17 of the United States Code).

Learn more about exceptions and limitations, including library use, right of sale, online teaching, persons with disabilities, and more on our Exceptions & Limitations to Copyright webpage