VCU Libraries

Research Guides

Scientific Images

Images, Film, Music, Multi-Media

Fair Use: Right to Reuse Without Permission

Fair use is a part of copyright law that recognizes certain uses of copyrighted works benefit society without causing undue harm to copyright holders and therefore do not require permission from the copyright holder. 

Some of the examples listed as fair use in copyright law include criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. However, not all uses for these purposes will automatically be fair.

Fair use is purposefully vague so that it can remain flexible as technologies and types of uses change over time. However, its vagueness can make it more difficult to decide when your use is or is not fair. In order to decide if a use is fair, you have to analyze the particular details of your situation and proposed use

Everyone is free to exercise the right to make a fair use of a copyrighted work, but copyright owners are also free to disagree with a user's fair use analysis and to subsequently sue for copyright infringement. That means that those who want to exercise their fair use right will need to do so with careful thought and will need to 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)) permit the performance and display of copyrighted works without permission or payment 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, however, 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