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Stony Brook University

Digital Composition, Storytelling & Multimodal Literacy: Copyright, Creative Commons and Fair Use

Resources for digital composition, storytelling and multimodal literacy.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection for authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intellectual products. Publication is not essential for copyright protection, nor is the well known symbol of the "encircled c" (©). Copyright provides these creators with a set of limited exclusive rights. The law balances the private interests of copyright owners with the public interest and is intended, in the words of the Constitution, "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for a limited time to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

U.S. copyright law grants copyright owners the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce a work;
  • prepare derivative works based on the original;
  • distribute copies to the public;
  • perform the work publicly; and
  • display the work publicly


Additional Resources

Source: University of Idaho Library []

What is Public Domain?

The public domain is generally defined as consisting of works that are either ineligible for copyright protection or works whose term of copyright has expired. No permission is needed to copy or use these works. Public domain works and information represent some of the most critical information that faculty members and students rely upon and they can be quoted extensively. They can also be copied and distributed to classes or digitized and placed on course web pages without permission or paying royalties.


Public Domain Determination Tables

Copyright Registration Records

Additional Resources

Source: University of Idaho Library []

What is the Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.

Our free, easy-to-use copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice. CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.”

Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.


Creative Commons

CC Search

Source: Creative Commons []

What is Fair Use?

To create a balance between the interests of those who develop intellectual and creative works and those who benefit from accessing and using said works, copyright law includes exemptions that limit the exclusive rights of copyright holders. One such exemption is fair use, which allows users of copyrighted works to exercise certain rights without seeking permission or paying royalties.


The complexity of the Fair Use Doctrine and its importance in academia make it imperative that every member of the campus instructional community understands how to make judgments concerning fair use. The information and tools that follow are designed to assist your decision-making. When combined with a thoughtful consideration of the legitimate interests of copyright owners, they will help assure good faith applications of fair use at the university.


The Four Factors of Fair Use


The determination of whether the use of a copyrighted work is within fair use depends upon making a reasoned and balanced application of the four fair use factors set forth in Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. These factors are as follows:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether the copied material will be for non-profit, educational, or commercial use. This factor at first seems reassuring; but unfortunately for educators, several courts have held that the absence of financial gain, in and of itself, is insufficient for a finding of fair use.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work, with special consideration given to the distinction between a creative work and an informational work. Photocopies made of a newspaper, for example, are more likely to be considered a fair use than copies made of a musical score or a short story. Likewise, duplication of material originally developed for classroom consumption is less likely to be a fair use than is the duplication of materials prepared for public consumption. For example, a teacher who photocopies a workbook page or a textbook chapter is depriving the copyright owner of profits more directly than if copying a page from the daily newspaper.
  • The amount, substantiality, or portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. This factor requires consideration of 1) the proportion of the larger work that is copied and used, and 2) the significance of the copied portion.
  • The effect of the use on the potential market of the copyrighted work. This factor is regarded as the most critical in determining fair use, and it serves as the basic principle from which the other three factors are derived and to which they are related. If the reproduction of a copyrighted work reduces the potential market and sales and, therefore, the potential profits of the copyright owner, that use is unlikely to be found a fair use.

Resources and Tools

  • Using the Four Factor Fair Use Test (University of Texas at Austin) - This site gives descriptions and examples of uses that weigh in favor of and against fair use and those "in the middle" that can be further beneficial in a fair-use analysis. The four factors are defined individually and in relation to one another.
  • Fair Use Analysis Checklist (Columbia University) - This is a printable worksheet that allows you to select uses that favor and weigh against fair use based on your desired use. It also includes brief descriptions of each factor.
  • Fair Use Evaluator (ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy) - This is an interactive, step-by-step guide developed by the ALA to facilitate fair use analysis among educators.
  • Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication