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Copyright: FAQ and Best Practices

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

Copyright Best Practices

Fair Use


U.S. Navy

Copyright FAQ

General Copyright

If I find it on the web, it’s free to use, right?

No. Copyright concepts apply to all media, whether digital or print. In fact, publishers and copyright owners are more concerned about resources on the web because the audience is vast and it is so easy to copy and distribute such materials. Since most creative expression is copyright protected as soon as it is fixed in tangible form, you should assume that most material found on a website is copyright protected. Look for terms and conditions of acceptable use for images and text you find online before copying and reusing any content. Remember that it is not necessary for a rightsholder to post a copyright notice in order to have these exclusive rights of copyright, even on the web. 

A great place to start to think through a copyright inquiry is the copyright framework page. It provides a step-by-step copyright framework guide.

Remember, linking to a legal site is permissible.

For guidance on how to use various materials, please see the using materials page.

What is not covered by copyright? 

Ideas, raw data, facts, slogans, names and short phrases cannot be copyrighted. Methods of operations, systems, processes, principles, discoveries, and procedures cannot be copyrighted, although it may be possible to copyright the way these things are expressed.

For more details, please see the copyright law page.

How can I tell if copyright has been renewed?

Copyright renewals only concern those works that were first published in the U.S. during the years 1929-1963. Works published during this period had to get their copyrights renewed at the U.S. Copyright Office by their 28th year in order to stay protected by copyright. There is no need to research renewals for works published in the U.S. prior to 1929 as these are in the U.S. public domain, or after 1963 as they received an automatic 95-year copyright term. Works that were first published elsewhere before 1977, like in the United Kingdom, often have a 95 year copyright term even if they did not comply with U.S. requirements for things like renewal because of agreements the U.S. later made with other countries.

For more details on copyright law, duration, and renewals, please see the copyright law and public domain pages.

What about using a work that has been published outside of the United States?

Copyright law is territorial. Reproduction and other uses in the United States are governed by U.S. law and agreements between the U.S. and other countries. Copyright protection in other countries depends on the laws of the particular country. Most countries offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions that have been greatly simplified by international copyright treaties and conventions.

There are two principal international copyright conventions, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne Convention) and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). International publications and copyright terms may be different than United States publications (see Circular 38A International Copyright Relations of the United States, U.S. Copyright Office for more details).

Remember, government-produced works in other countries are not public domain in the U.S. (please see the Government works page for more details). Works produced by world institutions like the United Nations, NATO, and the World Bank are not public domain. Permission is required if the use is not covered by an exception in the law. A best practice is to link to world institution's legal sites.

Are there exceptions in the law to provide students with copyrighted works in a specialized format?

It is generally permissible, in an academic setting, to reproduce or distribute copies of certain copyrighted works, such as instructional materials, if such copies are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats for use by individuals that need them. Examples include providing a digital or Braille copy of a textual work to enable use by students with visual impairment, or providing a captioned version of a video when such version is not commercially available so that the video may be used by a student with hearing loss. 

Please see 17 U.S.C. § 121 for more details.

Can you recommend some resources that provide a general overview of U.S. Copyright Law?

Please visit the FAQ page called U.S. Copyright Office Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright.

The U.S. Copyright Office has an online application to register the copyright in your creative work and guidance on U.S. copyright law. Remember, you do not need to register your work in order to have protection, it is automatic at the moment of creation, but registration does provide some benefits.

Please also visit the NWC additional resources, copyright related topics, and alternative resources pages for helpful information. 

Education and Copyright

Is it fair use to post copyrighted materials on my course page or site?

It depends. You should look at the four factors of fair use to determine how your particular situation fares when examined using the fair use four factor criteria. See the fair use page for more information and to learn about the four factors of fair use. Each factor should be balanced in good faith with the other factors. Determine that you are using just enough (a "decidedly small amount") to reach your pedagogical purpose(s) and not the "heart" of the work. The work must be essential, for without it, you would not be able to have the class analysis, discussion, or commentary necessary to meet the course learning objective(s). Fair use should be evaluated each and every time (trimester/student cohort/academic year) you desire to use it. The circumstances used to evaluate the four factors may change between your uses (e.g., licensing may become available or not available; an unlimited user eBook may become available or not available).

In general, it is important to make sure access to your course web page is restricted, e.g., by use of a course management system or password, and that students are aware of their responsibility using the copyrighted works (personal/educational use and not to disseminate further). 

Please also see the copyright for faculty page for more informational details about copyright coursework.

Are there rules about what articles and other text I can scan myself and make available to students using Leganto or Blackboard course management website?

From Duke ScholarWorks FAQ on Coursework (CC-BY-NC-SA):

Yes. Every use of copyrighted material in a course management website should be evaluated for and deemed a fair use. When a fair use analysis does not support the use, either permission should be sought or some other material that is not subject to copyright substituted. In general, material that could not be used in print without permission also may not be used in a course web site without permission.

Fair use is a balancing test, and there is no certain way (short of a lawsuit) to know that a particular use is a fair use. To address this uncertainty, the copyright law provides that when employees of a non-profit educational institution make a good faith judgment about fair use, they are protected from most of the damages that a copyright owner could collect if they are found to be mistaken. So thinking about fair use and making a reasoned and defensible decision about it, is very important.

When we make a fair use determination, we have to balance four factors. No one factor, nor any specific combination of factors, is decisive in this analysis; we simply look at all four and decide if the overall balance favors fair use or if it points us toward seeking permission. It is generally agreed, however, that the first and fourth factors usually carry the most weight in the analysis.

The first factor is the purpose and character of the use. Educational uses favor a finding of fair use, whereas commercial uses count against fair use. Nevertheless, even a commercial use may be found to be fair if it is transformative, which means that it creates a new work with its own social value out of materials borrowed from the original. Comment and criticism, as well as parody, are often regarded as transformative uses.

The second factor looks at the nature of the original work. It is easier to make a fair use of factual or non-fiction material than of highly creative work. Also, an unpublished work gets stronger protection, so that fair use, while still possible, is less likely.

The third factor is the amount of the original work that is used; the more of the work that is taken, the less likely a finding of fair use is. The best practice is to use no more of a copyright-protected work than is necessary for the educational purpose you are pursuing. It is also important to know that this factor may count against fair use if the “heart” of a work – its central message or point – is taken, even if the percentage of words copied is quite small.

The fourth factor is the impact on the market for the original. In the context of course management systems, this means that scanning and distribution of articles or portions of books should never be used to substitute for purchasing the original work if available for purchase. If a book is out-of-print but still copyright protected and students will need to read a large portion of it, permission should be sought.

Do I need permission to reuse a table or figure?

While facts and data are generally not eligible for copyright, it is possible for the creative arrangement or visual display of data – in graphic design or artistic rendering – to be copyright protected. Not all graphs and charts are eligible for copyright protection, though. For more information and some examples, please see this article hosted by the University of Michigan on the Copyrightability of Charts, Tables, and GraphsEven if a figure has copyrightable expression, permission is not required if the reuse qualifies within the four factors of fair use. If the table or figure is from a library-licensed resource, please check the vendor's terms of use/license.

Other than under fair use, am I allowed to use this work in my classroom?

U.S. copyright law permits instructors and students to make certain uses of copyrighted works in face-to-face teaching. As an instructor or student, you are allowed to perform or display (not provide copies of) a copyrighted work without permission in “a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” during face-to-face teaching at a nonprofit educational institution. If the work is a motion picture or other audiovisual work, you must use a copy of the work that was lawfully made. This is codified in 17 U.S.C. § 110(1). This statute does not cover online teaching or distance education.

Please see the copyright for faculty page for more details.

Other than under fair use, am I allowed to use this work in an online or distance learning class?

U.S. copyright law has a provision codified in 17 U.S.C. § 110(2) (TEACH Act). This provision gives instructors the right to use copyright protected works for distance learning without permission under certain circumstances:

If you:

  • are, or are acting under direction or actual supervision of, an instructor in a class session offered by an accredited nonprofit educational institution or governmental body;
  • are using the material as an integral part of a class session (not supplemental or optional materials);
  • are using the material that is directly related to and of material assistance to your teaching content (you will directly discuss/comment on the material); and
  • are using a copy of the work that was prepared lawfully,
  • and the copyrighted work:
    • was not “produced or marketed primarily for performance or display as part of mediated instructional activities transmitted via digital networks;” (e.g., textbooks or workbooks) and
    • will be transmitted solely to students officially enrolled in the course for which the transmission is made or officers or employees of governmental bodies as a part of their official duties or employment,

and your use is:

  • performing a nondramatic literary work (e.g., reading a short story aloud);
  • performing a nondramatic musical work (e.g., singing a song);
  • performing a reasonable and limited amount of any other work (e.g., playing an excerpt from a movie); or
  • displaying any work in an amount comparable to what would be used in a live classroom,

and your institution:

  • institutes a copyright policy;
  • provides information about copyright to faculty, students, and relevant staff members;
  • provides notice to students that materials used in connection with the course may be subject to copyright protection; and
  • if the transmission is digital, applies the required technological measures by reasonably preventing:
    • retention of the work in accessible form by recipients for longer than the class session, and
    • unauthorized further dissemination of the work to others;

then U.S. copyright law permits your use.

Please see the copyright for faculty page for more details.

Am I allowed to post this work on my course website?

Per NWC Copyright Policy, faculty are individually responsible for making their own risk analysis decisions about posting materials on course websites, such as Blackboard or Leganto. In some cases, fair use and other user’s rights permit you to post material on your course website. In others, it is necessary to obtain permission.

For more information about copyright and course websites, please see the faculty page.

For more details on NWC Library-licensed resources and their terms of use, please see the library-licensed materials page.

Am I allowed to use this video in my teaching?

Many of the users' rights in the U.S. Copyright Act, including fair use, apply to some uses of video in teaching. Change of format without permission is generally against the law. Short clips are an exception under certain parameters.

For copyright information specific to the use of video (including information on library streaming services as well as public performance rights for activities like film festivals), please see the film and faculty pages.

Be aware that musical works come with multiple layers of copyright protection and different portions may have different rightsholders (e.g., multiple permissions/licensing). Please see the Where to Find Alternative Resources page for some more information on copyright protection in musical works and sound recordings.

Am I allowed to use this work I found on a website?

Placing a work on a website does not change its copyright status. If you would like to use a work you have found on a lawful online site, you need to consider whether it is protected by copyright, whether your use would implicate the rights of the copyright holder, and whether any users' rights entitle you to make your use. A best practice is to link to a legal website instead of using a PDF version of the work. Another best practice is checking the terms of use of the site (generally found hyperlinked at the bottom of the site's page).

If a work is published online with a statement that it is in the public domain or that it is licensed under a public license, such as a Creative Commons license, you will need to assess the credibility of that information and then decide whether or not to rely on it, and if relying on it, ultimately complying with the terms of the license.

Please also see the Open Access and Open Educational Resources page for more options.

Am I allowed to use this work I created in my class?

If you are civilian faculty at NWC, you may own the initial copyright in your work that is published in a scholarly journal or press. It may not be considered a government work, but before signing a publishing contract, please speak with NWC OGC or Staff Judge Advocate's Office for support. If you are the rightsholder, please consider retaining some of your rights for educational use and not transferring all your rights to the publisher (see Copyright for Authors for more details). For more details on government works, please see the Government works page and 17 U.S.C. §105 for clarification.

If you are the sole author of the work, you can do what you like with it, so long as you have not transferred away all or part of your copyright bundle of exclusive rights (e.g., in a publishing agreement). If you are a joint author, the same is true, but you owe your co-authors a share of any profits from the uses you authorize. If you created the work within the scope of your employment and your contract is explicit that your employer is the rightsholder (or you are a federal employee) or you created the work under a work for hire contract, you are not the rightsholder for the purposes of copyright. You can ask your employer or the entity you contracted with for clarification and possibly permission to use the work. 

If you have transferred away all or part of your copyright, the transfer agreement will tell you what rights you have left (if any). This is one reason it is important to keep copies of your publishing agreements and other contracts. Read them thoroughly before signing and think about how you may be restricting your future uses of your own work.

Even if you are not the rightsholder, you may still be able to use the work under a user's right, such as fair use. If the use you want to make is not a fair one, you will need to ask for permission or pay to license it.

Who holds copyright in a work created by a student?

Please see the copyright for students page. For legal clarification, please speak with NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office.

For more details on Government works, please see 17 U.S.C. § 105

What does it mean if a work is licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that created a set of simple international public copyright licenses. These licenses allow creators to mark a work with permission to make a variety of uses, with the aim of expanding the range of things available for use by others. Creative Commons licenses do two things: they allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find works they already have permission to use (without reaching out to the rightsholder for permission). To take advantage of the permission granted in the license, you must obey the conditions of the license. For instance, all of the Creative Commons licenses require that you provide attribution to the work’s author when you use the work.

For more information, consult our Creative Commons page or visit the Creative Commons website.

What can I do if the use I want to make is not permitted by a user's right?

If you have determined that the use you want to make is not a fair use and is not permitted by any of the other user statutory rights, you must ask for permission from the copyright holder.

See the requesting permission to use copyrighted material page for more information including links to sample request letters.

I want to use someone else’s work as part of a school assignment, is that okay? 

You are free to use works that fall within the public domain. Otherwise, your use of the work must either fall under an exception of copyright law, be permitted by the copyright owner, be licensed in a way that permits your use (Creative Commons licensed, Open Access or library licensed) or fall under fair use. Please review all licenses carefully to determine if your use is permitted.

Please see the student page for more details.

Can I use someone else’s work outside of the classroom? Do I need to get special permission? 

You are free to use works that fall within the public domain. Otherwise, you must either seek permission to use the work from the rightsholder (using materials and permissions), be licensed in a way that permits your use, or your use must fall under fair use or another exception in the law.

I would like to use an in-copyright image I found on social media but the rightsholder/content creator is from another country or group affiliation, do I need their permission?

As the United States Copyright Office explains, there is no single law governing "international copyrights." The laws of the individual country govern as do international treaties and agreements. Copyright law is national in scope. In general, regardless of the rightsholder's country of origin, global location, or group affiliation, you must get their permission or rely on a copyright exception before using the work. 

International publications and copyright terms may be different than United States publications (see Circular 38A International Copyright Relations of the United States, U.S. Copyright Office for more details). That circular will explain whether or not a country has reciprocal copyright laws.

To determine the copyright term of a work published abroad, please also consult Peter Hirtle's Copyright Map (Cornell, updated yearly). For additional information, please see TerraLex's Cross-Border Copyright Guide 2019 is written by local experts providing an overview of copyright law in 18 countries.

May a department load copyrighted works (articles, books or book chapters, and full films or film clips) onto an electronic device to provide to students?

Without permission (written or paid licensing) for an in-copyright work, it is an infringement to load any work (portion or full amount) onto a device provided to students. These are considered copies and only the rightsholder of the work can make copies. In general and in most if not all cases, this scenario is a copyright infringement and the NWC/DoN/DoD would be legally liable. If the copyright protected works are provided in perpetuity (even with a password), it would more than likely be considered copyright infringement.

In order to be compliant with the law, each "copy" of the in-copyright work provided on the device must fall within an exception in the law or direct permission (sometimes a license for a fee) from the rightsholder is necessary. In addition to the requirement of permission, a license, or a legal exception, students and other users must be made aware in writing that the use of an in copyright work is covered under a statutory exception, license, or direct permission from the rightsholder and that the work is for personal, educational use and should not be disseminated further.

Generally, for films, change of format without permission is against the law. Short clips are an exception under certain parameters. For copyright information specific to the use of video, please see the film and faculty pages.

For more details on what constitutes an in-copyright work, please visit the public domain page to learn how to determine a work's copyright status.

Please see the fair use page for more details on that copyright exception.

Am I protected if I just credit a source to protect myself against claims of copyright infringement? 

Attribution helps someone avoid plagiarism not copyright infringement. Copyright infringement is a separate issue from plagiarism. It is always a best practice, however, to provide attribution.

For more information see the students page.

What if I can't find the copyright owner to ask for permission? 

Works whose rightsholder(s) cannot be found or identified are known as orphan works. That fact that a work is an orphan work does not mean that the work is in the public domain. Copyright infringement may occur with orphan works.

Your Work and Copyright

Why would I want to register my copyright?

Although copyright protection in a work begins at the moment of creation and is not lost for failure to register, registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is a prerequisite to a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement. Thus, you could register a copyright after an infringement has occurred, but you may not obtain either statutory (as opposed to actual) damages or attorneys' fees if the registration was not made within three months of the first publication of the work (§§ 411-412 of the U.S. copyright law).

How do I put a copyright notice on my work?

A copyright notice is an identifier placed on a work to inform the world of copyright ownership. Though copyright notices are no longer necessary, it is recommended to include on your work a clear, standard copyright notice in a prominent location for publications, multimedia, web pages, and software. If the rightsholder is an entity, acknowledgment of the owners may be included under the copyright notice. A copyright notice must contain either the word "Copyright," the abbreviation "Copr.," or the symbol "©." Although not required, you can include both the word "Copyright" and the symbol. The word or symbol is followed by the year of first publication and then the name of the rightsholder(s).

How can I put a work in the public domain?

Copyright begins automatically upon the creation of an original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Consequently, if you want others to have free use of your work, you can make it clear, preferably in the work itself, that you do not assert any copyright ownership and waive any copyright interest.  Alternatively, without dedicating your work to the public domain, you can instead retain copyright ownership but grant a non-exclusive and royalty-free license to another person to use, reproduce, modify, and prepare derivative works based upon the original work. Creative Commons provides further explanation of this type of licensing along with examples of different types of licenses and a public domain dedication tool.

What can I do if I find my work being distributed online without my permission?

Remember that others may rely on fair use when using your work. If you believe their use is not fair, then you have options. It is increasingly common to find infringing material on websites sharing course materials for college courses. Such websites, which allow users to upload materials, usually include information on how to remove or “take down” these course materials under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Copyright infringement cases reside in Federal courts, but the Copyright Claims Board (CCB) is a new option as of summer 2022 to bring a copyright infringement case. CCB cases are optional and participants may opt out of the proceeding; the claimant then has the option to bring the case to Federal court. For more information on the CCB, please see the Copyright Related Topics page (and the CCB tab).

How do I make sure my rights are protected when I sign a publishing agreement?

First, read the contract carefully. If you are civilian faculty and authored a scholarly work such as an article or book, in the course of your teaching and research at NWC, then you likely own the copyright. It is therefore up to you as an individual to manage the copyrights to your scholarly works. University of California's OSC has a helpful resource for managing copyright agreements.

For more details, please see the authors page.

Someone has contacted me asking for permission to use my article (or book chapter, or other work). What do I do?

If you would like to provide some form of permission, it’s best to be as specific as possible when granting permission for others to use your work. Think about exactly who, what, when, where, and how you are permitting your work to be used. Sometimes your work can be used without asking your permission, such as if the requested use meets the requirements of fair use. Even if someone seeks your permission and you deny that request, that user may still use the work if it falls within the four factors of fair use. Oftentimes, an author may sign their exclusive rights of copyright away to their publisher, so it is important to verify that you retained the rights to use the work in order to provide permission to someone. You may not have the right to grant permission for a certain use.

I would like to translate a book, is that permissible?

Translations are considered derivative works and are one of the exclusive rights of copyright provided to the rightsholder(s). If the work is still in its copyright term, a translation without permission is a copyright infringement of the original work's rightsholder. If you are interested in translating an in-copyright work (including a book), please first ask permission in writing to the rightsholder.

If you would like to translate a work published in another country, remember that copyright law is national in scope. In general, regardless of the rightsholder's country of origin, global location, or group affiliation, you must get their permission or rely on a copyright exception before using the work. International publications and copyright terms may be different than United States publications (see Circular 38A International Copyright Relations of the United States, U.S. Copyright Office for more details). To determine the copyright term of a work published abroad, please also consult Peter Hirtle's Copyright Map (Cornell, updated yearly).

Please see the copyright law page for more details on the rights of owners and the rights of users.

Please see the permissions page for more details on requesting permission.

Copyright in the Library 

Are there any restrictions on the copies that a library can provide to a patron? 

Limitations on library copying (17 U.S.C. § 108) is covered on the librarians page.

Why is a library allowed to display and lend books?

17 U.S.C. § 109 (First Sale Doctrine) is covered on the librarians page.

Can a library make copies of an original work that is damaged, lost, stolen, or now obsolete for the purpose of preserving the work? 

Information on preservation copies (17 U.S.C. § 108) is available on the librarians page.

Can patrons make their own copies? Are there restrictions on copying equipment the library may provide? 

Information on notification requirements on library photocopiers (17 U.S.C. § 108) is available on the librarians page.

Where can I find information on copying materials to fulfill an interlibrary loan request? 

Information is available (17 U.S.C. § 108) on the librarians page.

Are there other terms of use that I need to follow when using NWC Library-licensed resources?

Please visit the library-licensed materials use page.

If I receive permission from an in-copyright work's rightsholder, may I post a downloaded copy from the NWC library's collection or from another library's collection of which I am an authorized user?

In general, most vendors that license collections to libraries prohibit the posting of downloaded copies to electronic reserves like Leganto or learning management systems like Blackboard. Please link to NWC library-licensed resources (except any Harvard Business Publishing works- in that case, only link to the Primo resource page). If you have received permission from a rightsholder to use their work in Leganto or Blackboard, please use a clean copy that retains its copyright statements/notices and that does not state it was downloaded from NWC library or a different library's electronic collection. To identify if your copy has these statements, look on the side of the paper or in the footer or header areas.

It is also a best practice to state on the platform (Leganto or Blackboard) along with the citation of the work that you received permission from the rightsholder(s) to use the work along with any parameters (time frame, etc.).

Please visit the library-licensed materials use page for more details.

Is it possible to create a collection or database of downloaded NWC library-licensed resources to share within my research department or academic department?

No. Authorized users of NWC library-licensed works are prohibited in all of our vendor contracts from systematically downloading some or all copies from a library collection and creating a separate database or collection for their department or research team. Not only is this a breach of contract, it is also illegal under copyright law. It is safe to assume that other libraries nationally and internationally also follow these licensing or contract restrictions. You must be an Authorized User to access their materials and if you are an Authorized User, you may not systematically download any of the materials.

Who do I contact when I need specific library support?

  • Access to electronic resources:
  • Access Services (circulation):
  • Acquisitions:
  • Classified Library:
  • Copyright:
  • Donations:
  • Reference:
  • Reserves:

Need More Help?

Where can I go for extra help with my copyright questions? 

Please see the NWC additional copyright tools and resourcesalternative resources, and copyright related topics pages. 

If you are unable to find the information you need, or have additional informational questions, feel free to contact the NWC Copyright Office by emailing:  

For NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, please contact NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office.

For personal legal advice, please contact personal counsel.

Please be aware that U.S. Copyright Law is subject to change. The NWC Copyright Office strives to keep this guide up to date with any changes, but cannot guarantee that recent changes are immediately updated.