VCU Libraries

Research Guides

Scientific Images

Images, Film, Music, Multi-Media

Fair Use: Right to Reuse Without Permission

United States copyright law recognizes that there are certain uses of copyrighted works that benefit society without causing undue harm to copyright holders. These kinds of uses are allowed under the doctrine of fair use, which means they do not require permission from the copyright holder. 

Some examples of fair use listed in copyright law include criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. However, not all uses made for these purposes will automatically be fair. Instead, copyright law provides a framework to determine what uses should be considered fair. This means that fair use must always be considered on a case by case basis.

The fair use framework is purposefully vague so that it can remain flexible as technologies and types of uses change over time. However, this can make it more difficult to decide whether or not your use falls under fair use. In order to make this decision, you must analyze the particular details of your situation and proposed use.

Everyone is free to make fair uses of copyrighted works, but copyright owners can disagree on what qualifies as fair use and assert that uses are copyright infringement. This means that those who want to exercise their fair use right should consider their use under the framework provided by copyright law and weigh the risks involved in certain uses. 

For examples of cases that courts have decided as either fair use or not fair use (copyright infringement), see:

Classroom Exceptions to Copyright

Face-to-face instruction exceptions (17 U.S. Code § 110(1)) allow the performance and display of copyrighted works without permission when all of the following requirements are met:

  1. The instruction must occur in a place dedicated to instruction where the teaching and learning takes place at the same time (such as a classroom). 
  2. The instruction must occur at a non-profit educational institution. 
  3. All materials used for performance or display must be legally acquired. These materials include works such as music, text, images, and video.

This exception does not apply to making or distributing copies of copyrighted works. When making or distributing copies, instructors must rely on fair use or seek permission from copyright holders.

Public Domain: Without Copyright

The public domain is made up of all works that are not eligible for copyright protection, which includes most works created by the United States government, as well as works that no longer have copyright protection. All works in the public domain are free to be copied and used without restriction. Works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain. 

What is Generally Is a Classroom Exception or Fair Use?

Digital images may be used by educators, scholars, and students for:

  • Display in connection with non-commercial lectures and presentations, including those for professional development
  • Workshops and conferences in the education field
  • Reproduction in an academic course assignment
  • Public display of academic student work undertaken as part of a course for which the student is registered
  • Retention of images used in academic work in personal portfolios for such purposes as graduate school and employment applications

What is Generally is Not an Classroom Copyright Exception or Fair Use?

Digital images generally may not be used for:

  • Reproduction and publishing in publications, including scholarly publications
  • Creation of derivative works, or manipulation of digital images into new digital works of art