Creative Commons

What is Creative Commons?

With the rise of networked communication, many authors and creators have sought to clarify which uses of their intellectual property they are happy to allow without being asked for permission. Creative Commons licenses allow them to specify which uses they permit and under what conditions. Additionally, these licenses are machine-readable, which means aggregation sites (like Google and others) can sort content by license type, which makes it much easier to find content that may be used for free.

Creative Commons does not replace or annul copyright. CC-licensed content still belongs to its creator, but specific uses are permitted to the public under each CC license type. Some are very permissive and some are more restrictive.

All CC licenses are “within the boundaries of copyright law.” The least restrictive license (CC-BY) only requires attribution to the content-creator (referred to as licensor), whereas other combinations address derivative, noncommercial, and share alike (requires derivatives to have the same license as the original) provisions, in addition to attribution. Based on your responses, the CC website will suggest license types and, if needed, provide HTML code that can be added to a webpage.

Benefits of using Creative Commons content in instruction

You can also use CC-licensed content for instructional purposes, such as inclusion in course packs or course management software, like BlackBoard. When you use CC content, time spent searching for a copyright owner to ask permission to reuse, remix, or share “All Rights Reserved” content is channeled to research, create new works, or teaching.

Here’s an infographic to help explain what is permitted and required by each license (in context with public domain and standard “all rights reserved”). Licenses are organized top to bottom from most open to least.

Chart of Public Domain, Creative Commons, and Rights Reserved usage terms
CC BY Aaron McCollough (adapted from a table by Anita Walz)

A complete list of CC-license types and conditions can be reviewed at the Creative Commons organization website.

You can create a CC-license for your own original content as the Creative Commons organization website, too.

Fair Use

What is Fair Use? | Fair Use Evaluator Tool | Best Practice Guides to Fair Use


What is Fair Use?

The copyright statute (17 U.S.C.) provides a number of limitations on the exclusive rights granted a copyright holder. The “Fair Use doctrine” is a relatively brief but extremely important limitation that empowers users to copy a portion or, in some cases, all of a work without asking for permission from the content owner. The decision-making process involves your objective consideration of each of the four factors stipulated in § 107 to assess the impact of your use on the rights of the copyright holder. To that end, forms and tools included on this website will assist you in weighing these factors and making a decision about whether your use is a fair use. A definition of “fair use”, as defined in the statute, is a good starting point.

§ 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

“Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.”


Fair Use Evaluator

To help you assess whether your proposed use of copyrighted material is a fair use, complete the online form provided by the Fair Use Evaluator tool. Print out and keep a copy of this time-stamped record, in the event you are asked by a copyright owner or a court of law how you arrived at your decision. Conducting this evaluation after you’ve used the content is not recommended.


Fair Use Evaluator

Fair Use Exceptions for Instructors (for performance and display of copyrighted material in traditional, distance, or blended educational models)


Best Practice Guides to Fair Use

Many organizations have written guidelines or best practices to help define fair use for specific audiences or types of content. These best practices provide an important framework for educators, in particular, in the event your decision supporting fair use is questioned by a court of law. American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact has compiled these documents (see CMSI’s Best Practices), or you may link to the document in the list below that is most applicable to your current needs). Topics are bolded for easier identification.

Copyright Basics

Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of copyright, such as what makes a work copyrightable, the elements of copyright ownership, and the duration of copyright for an item. If you are interested in conducting copyright research or how to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, take a look at the resources on the Registration & Research section below. Find out about using a Creative Commons license as an intermediate copyright option between “All Rights Reserved” and public domain works.

Copyright Basics | Registration & Research | Policies & Laws | Copyright Resources & Tools


Copyright Basics

A copyrighted work is defined as an expression of creativity that shows originality, although it doesn’t have to be unique, and is fixed in some medium so others may experience it. That is, if one can listen to, watch or read it, then the work meets the fixation element. Consult the Copyright Genie to determine if a work you are questioning is copyrightable.

What works are copyrightable? Just about everything.

  • Literary works
  • Musical scores & accompanying lyrics
  • Plays & accompanying music
  • Pantomimes & choreography
  • Pictorial, graphic & sculptural works
  • Motion pictures & other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

What isn’t protected by copyright?

  • Ideas, principles, or methods of operation
  • Basic facts
  • Titles, names, short phrases, or slogans (although the latter may be registered as a trademark)
  • Works that are in the public domain

Copyright protection starts the moment a work is fixed, but how long does it last?

Copyright duration can be quite complex and depends on when a work was created and the country in which it was registered. For a graphic overview of term limits for works registered in the United States, see Peter Suber’s excellent Copyright Term and the Public Domain table. The Public Domain Slider will also give you an idea as to whether a work you want to use may be in the public domain.

Here are a few choice online resources describing copyright basics:

Copyright and Libraries

Use the Section 108 Spinner for initial guidance regarding reproductions made by libraries and archives for their users, as replacement or preservation copies. Section 108 continues to be a hotly contested part of Copyright Law between producers and consumers of copyrighted material because educational use could not be agreed upon in the areas of distance learning, interlibrary loan, and electronic reserves. See US Copyright Office Circular 21 Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) provides information on several copyright and intellectual property issues and cases as they pertain to academic libraries, as well as additional resources. ARL also maintains Know Your Copy Rights, a site dedicated to using copyrighted works in academic settings.

The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) includes representatives from the American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries. Content specifically addresses those groups’ needs and interests.


Registration & Research

Copyright protection is often misunderstood. A creator does not need to file or register his/her work with the US Copyright Office in order to secure rights for that work. A work is copyrighted automatically when it is “fixed” for the first time by the creator. (Remember, copyright protection can only be granted to works that have been fixed in some medium.) The duration of that protection for all works created on or after January 1, 1978, is the life of the author plus 70 years. For works with multiple authors, the term is 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.

Although registration is not a condition of copyright protection, there are several benefits; it is a legal formality that produces a public record of the copyright claim. Additionally, registration is required to seek statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit that is filed in court for works originating in the United States. Registration may be made at any time within the original term of the copyright (the life of the author plus 70 years.)

To register a copyright, a creator must file a claim with the US Copyright Office. The application consists of three parts: a completed application form, a filing fee, and a nonreturnable “deposit.” The deposit is a copy of the work submitted to the Copyright Office.

US Copyright Office Circular 1: Copyright Basics (PDF)
US Copyright Office: Registering a Work
University Policy 4002: Copyright In University Works

Copyright Research

For specific information about the copyright status of an older work, there are currently two online databases available, as well as the Copyright Card Catalog in the Library of Congress, in which research may be necessary. Where you begin your research depends on the date of your item. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 22 How To Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work for copyright research guidance.

Briefly, the card catalog contains copyright records spanning registration of works dating from 1790 through 1977. The online catalog is available for works registered or renewed from January 1, 1978, to present. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 23 The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office for specific information regarding content in each. Copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for Class A books published in the US between 1923 and 1963 may be accessed using Stanford University’s Copyright Renewal Database.

The U.S. Copyright Office has begun scanning pre-1978 registration records to make them electronically accessible to researchers. The Office has proposed to create a virtual card catalog that would serve as an interim step to the long-term effort of capturing index terms from the scanned card images using OCR and keyboarding, with the ultimate goal of  building indexes for online searching. The Copyright Matters blog provides weekly updates about this enormous project.


Policies & Laws

Mason’s copyright policies address ownership of content created by faculty, staff, and students affiliated with the University. These policies provide basic guidance to the University community about use of third party content in materials created for instruction, directed works and student assignments, as well as materials provided via library services (e.g., ILL and e-reserves).

Although plagiarism is not a copyright issue, per se, academic integrity is an integral part of copyright. For this reason, the University’s statement on academic integrity is included here, as is the Student Honor Code. Ethics in work practice, instructional assignments, and use of state-owned (i.e., Mason) equipment are fundamental to the policies and laws associated with copyright.

Links to applicable federal and Virginia state copyright laws are provided as well, for your perusal.

University Policies | Academic Integrity | U.S. Copyright Act | Virginia State Law

University Policies

University Policy Number 1104 — Use and Reproduction of Copyrighted Materials
This policy provides guidelines and procedures for the use and reproduction by university employees and students of copyrighted works in electronic courseware, websites, print coursepacks, and electronic, print, and media reserves. That is, materials in which the university does not hold copyright

University Policy Number 1301 — Responsible Use of Computing
This policy explicitly stipulates acceptable and forbidden use of the George Mason University network and computer hardware. The DMCA infringement notification (aka Stop It) process is described in detail, as well.

University Policy Number 4002 — Copyright in University Works
This policy details the ownership of copyright in works created by George Mason University faculty, staff, and students.

University Policy Number 4003 — Patenting University Inventions
This policy addresses the ownership of, benefit from, and other matters relating to inventions made at the university.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is at the core of George Mason University culture. As members of the Mason community, students, faculty, and staff pledge not to “cheat, steal, plagiarize, or lie in matters related to . . . academic work.” We should be and are held to a high standard of honesty and accountability in our research, assignments, and publications.

The fundamental principle of integrity resonates throughout all aspects of university life. Because the university functions as our Internet Service Provider (ISP), we are bound to comply with state and federal laws governing this resource, as well as with the rules defined in the student Honor Code, Responsible Use of Computing, and other policies. Plagiarism is a serious Honor Code offense, and individuals who engage in this behavior may be subject to investigation and review by the university’s Honor Committee. On the other hand, copyright violations, such as unauthorized sharing of music and other proprietary material, that stem from improper use of the Mason network and equipment flout state and federal laws governing the use, replication, and distribution of copyrighted content.

U.S. Copyright Act

Content owners and consumers benefit from a balance in copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code). From an owner’s perspective, the law theoretically protects the rights of an individual who has spent time and, possibly, money creating a work. That is, the creator has a right to receive compensation and attribution for that work, as well as a level of control over its use. From a consumer’s perspective, the law may permit a work to be copied and enjoyed or expanded on, without the permission of the content, or copyright, owner. The decision to use a work without asking for permission is based on a subjective interpretation of the four factors comprising “fair use”, the doctrine on which users may rely as a defense against a content owner’s claim of copyright infringement.

As U.S. copyright law has evolved, several trends have emerged. In short, copyright duration for works owned by individuals has extended from 14 years, back in 1909, to the current time frame of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. This extension has inhibited the rollover of works into the public domain. Disagreements over the legal status of “orphan” or unclaimed works also precludes free use of these works by the public.  Easier access to and distribution of content via the Internet has revolutionized learning, teaching, buying, and selling. Consequently, commodification of information made available electronically has resulted in greater pressure by copyright owners to control and be compensated for their content. These broad and dynamic changes undoubtedly affect how the law is interpreted by both the public and the courts. Without the balance offered by the fair use doctrine, the financial and logistical impact of copyright on society would be overwhelmingly burdensome.

Read the entire law here Title 17 or read specific sections of the law, as denoted by the file tabs “Fair Use”, “TEACH Act”. “Digital Millenium Copyright Act”, etc.

Virginia State Law

Chapter 28 of Title 2.2, section 2822.  Ownership and use of patents and copyrights developed by certain public employees; Creative Commons copyrights.

Sub-section D states “this section shall not apply to employees of public institutions of higher education who shall be subject to the patent and copyright policies of the institution employing them.”

Chapter 38 of Title 59.1.   Virginia Music Licensing Fees Act

The Commonwealth law governing royalty contracts between a proprietor and a performing rights society, on behalf of a copyright owner, licensing public performance of nondramatic musical or other similar works.

Chapter 763 of Title 59.1 An Act to amend and reenact §§ 59.1-501.2 through 59.1-501.5, 59.1-501.9, 59.1-501.10, 59.1-501.12, 59.1-502.9, 59.1-502.12, 59.1-505.3, 59.1-506.5, and 59.1-508.16 of the Code of Virginia and to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 59.1-503.10, relating to the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act. [H 2412] Approved March 26, 2001


Copyright Resources & Tools

Public Domain

Public Domain Slider – This tool can assist you with in determining whether a work you want to use may be in the public domain.

Copyright Research

Card Catalog – This brochure (PDF) details how you can search copyright records at the Library of Congress. These records cover registration of works from 1790 through 1977.

Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders (WATCH) – A database resource principally for copyright questions about literary manuscripts held in the U.S. and the U.K., maintained jointly by the University of Texas and the University of Reading

US Copyright Office Online Catalog – This online catalog allows you to search registered (or renewed) works from January 1, 1978 to the present.

Copyright Renewal Database – This database from Stanford University allows you to search copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for Class A books published in the US between 1923 and 1963.

Copyright and Libraries

Section 108 Spinner – Use this tool to evaluate the need for reproductions made by libraries and archives for their users, for replacement or for preservation.

Intellectual Property Crash Course

This six episode miniseries by Crash Course producer Stan Muller explores the complex and persistent issue of intellectual property. This series of educational videos discusses the three major elements of intellectual property: copyright, patents, and trademarks. You can access the entire playlist here or watch the individual videos below:

Crash Course Intellectual Property  #1: Introduction to Intellectual Property

Crash Course Intellectual Property #2: Copyright Basics

Crash Course Intellectual Property #3: Copyright, Exceptions, and Fair Use 

Crash Course Intellectual Property #4: Patents, Novelty, and Trolls

Crash Course Intellectual Property #5: Trademarks and Avoiding Consumer Confusion

Crash Course Intellectual Property #6: International IP Law

Permission Letter Templates

Using Student Work Authorization Form – Use this form if you would like to request permission to use electronic or physical copies of student work.

Model Permission Letters – This site, hosted by Columbia University, has sample permission letters for using copyrighted material in a new work, in a course management system, or online.

Creative Commons

Why should I consider using a Creative Commons license to publish my work?

Creative Commons (CC) encourages openness and sharing of knowledge. Publish your original content using a CC license, instead of relying on the default “all rights reserved” copyright. Through a choice of six different types of licenses, CC offers a middle ground between public domain status (open to any use or purpose without permission or payment) and full copyright.

All CC licenses are “within the boundaries of copyright law.” The least restrictive license (CC-BY) only requires attribution to the content-creator (referred to as licensor), whereas other combinations address derivative, noncommercial, and share alike (requires derivatives to have the same license as the original) provisions, in addition to attribution. Based on your responses, the CC website will suggest license types and, if needed, provide HTML code that can be added to a webpage.Continue Reading Creative Commons

Content Toolbox

Need images and other media for assignments, teaching materials, and websites? See the list below for ideas on where to find copyrighted content in databases available to you through the University Libraries’ subscriptions. To find content you can share, use, and perhaps modify without worrying about copyright infringement, search in the Creative Commons portal or explore works in the public domain. But remember, scholarly practice requires attribution to the original creator no matter whether the item is protected by copyright law, available under a Creative Commons license, or in the public domain.

Proprietary content available to the George Mason community for use in teaching and student assignments

Art: Online Images

Arts and Sciences: Images

Bioinformatics Images

Biology Images

Specialized Image Collections

Continue Reading Content Toolbox

Copyright FAQs

Looking for a quick answer to a specific question? The Scholarly Communication and Copyright Office’s Frequently Asked Questions might have the answer. If not, please contact us at copyright@gmu.edu or 703-993-2544.

Fair Use | Requesting Permission | File Sharing | Dissertations/Theses

Fair Use

What is fair use?
Fair use is the term used for the limited exception to the exclusive rights granted to an author or creator by copyright law. The fair use doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the rights holder for certain activities such as research, instruction, criticism, commentary and news reporting.

How do I know if my use of copyrighted material is fair use?
There are several factors that will weigh in favor of fair use, but it is helpful to use a checklist to help you determine if your use is fair or not.

George Mason University Fair Use Checklist
Fair Use Evaluator


Continue Reading Copyright FAQs

Course Packs

There is no such thing as a “fair use course anthology.” Instructors who choose to create a course pack of required readings for his/her students should conduct a fair use analysis for each item to be included in the pack. Use the Fair Use Evaluator tool to help you determine whether your proposed use is defensible as a fair use. You may also refer to the U.S. Copyright Office’s Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians (PDF) for more specific information, or call the Copyright Office for assistance.

When a proposed use of any copyrighted work appears to go beyond fair use limitations, you may decide to develop a course pack. Please contact Jared Prebish (703-993-3835) with the Mason Bookstore for assistance.