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Estelle and Melvin Gelman LibraryEckles Library at the Mount Vernon CampusVirginia Science and Technology Campus Library

Fair Use

Fair use lets you use parts of works created by others in your work. Sometimes you need to obtain permission from the authors/owners of an original work to use parts of it.

The concept of fair use is somewhat vague when discussed in the abstract. Its meaning depends critically on the particular facts of the individual situation. The law does not clearly distinguish which uses are fair and which are not.

The "fair use" doctrine allows limited reproduction of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes. The relevant portion of the copyright statute says that the "fair use" of a copyrighted work, including reproduction "for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" is not an infringement of copyright. The law lists the following factors as the ones to be evaluated in determining whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is a permitted "fair use" rather than an infringement of the copyright:

•The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

•The nature of the copyrighted work

•The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.

•The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Although all of these factors will be considered, the last factor is the most important in determining whether a particular use is "fair." Where a work is available for purchase or license from the copyright owner in the medium or format desired, copying of all or a significant portion of the work instead of purchasing or licensing a sufficient number of "authorized" copies would be unfair. Where only a small portion of a work is to be copied and the work would not be used if purchase or licensing of a sufficient number of authorized copies were required, the intended use is more likely to be found to be fair. However, there is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Moreover, acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

You can obtain permission from an author or publisher using this sample copyright permission letter.

Visit the U.S. Copyright Office website for the most recent information about Copyright and Fair Use. To search for registered works and documents from January 1, 1978 to the present, click on the Search Records tab from the main page. For information on how to locate copyright records prior to January 1, 1978, consult Circular 23: The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office. Note: A fee-based service to conduct the search and produce a report on its findings is available through the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

Alternatively, you may contact the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), a pay-per-use, fee-based service, that obtains copyright permissions for you.

More Resources on Fair Use and Copyright

GW Resources

  • Copyright Basics for GW is a comprehensive guide to copyright with links to information explaining copyright ownership to "Fair Use" of copyrighted materials.
  • Dissertation Research includes links to tools to help you determine the fair use of resources.
Electronic Theses and Dissertations Administrator: Gelman Library.2130.H.Street.NW.Washington.DC.20052.etds@gwu.edu