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

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

Requesting Permission

How do I request permission to use electronic or physical copies of copyrighted materials?
Columbia University provides an overview of procedures for contacting and requesting permission from a copyright owner to use a copyrighted work. The first step in securing permission is to identify the copyright owner or owners and contact them to request permission.

Click here for examples of permission letter templates.

File Sharing

Why are Mason users receiving Stop It notices about copyright violations?
The University’s Responsible Use of Computer policy forbids users from using Mason resources and networks for copyright violations. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, copyright holders have increased power to enforce their rights against those using their copyrighted materials without a license. The music, television, film and software industries have been particularly aggressive about enforcing their exclusive rights to distribute the works of their artists. Under the DMCA, the university is liable for fines up to $150,000 if it fails to assert its own policy against copyright violations.

How can these outside companies find violations?
Basically, copyright holders (or those acting on their behalf) find violations in the same same way infringers find files. Using the same programs and protocols (Gnutella, BitTorrent, etc.): they scan for files. Once they find a shared file, they can track the IP address making the file available. A range of IP addresses is assigned to George Mason University and you are assigned one when you log onto the Mason network. Checking network log files can reveal the user who had a specific IP address when a file was shared or downloaded.

For more information about how the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) finds incidents of music piracy, read How It Does It: The RIAA Explains How it Catches Alleged Music Pirates – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Are my downloads being monitored? Is my hard drive being searched?
No. These locator bots and programs only look at file-sharing programs. They cannot monitor your downloads or look at your hard drive. The university does not actively monitor any individual’s network activity.

How is having music, tv shows and movies on my computer a violation?
When your music, shows and movies are under the custody of a file-sharing program, anyone can access it and download a copy. This makes you a distributor of copyrighted materials. Under the law, this is illegal unless you have permission from the copyright holder to distribute the materials. As an illegal distributor of content, you are in violation of both US copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code, ยง106.) It is also a violation of Mason’s Responsible Use of Computing policy (University Policy Number 1301), which is why the university sends Stop It notices to copyright infringers.

Why do I have to delete the files I previously downloaded?
To comply with copyright law, you should remove all music, television, movie and software programs and files from your system for which you do not have an explicit license that that allows you to distribute these files to others.

Can’t I just “unshare” my files?
In addition to the fact that you have illegally obtained these files, which is comparable to going into a store and stealing a CD, most file-sharing programs are designed to share. Even if you uncheck a program’s sharing option, some programs and files remain visible and can be detected by locator bots.

I received a Stop It notice but I never downloaded anything to my computer. What should I do?
The Stop It process is not perfect and “false positives” are possible. It is also possible that a friend, roommate or another person used your computer or your account to download files without your knowledge. The Copyright Resources Office suggests that you:

  • Remove any and all file-sharing programs from your computer
  • Remove any infringing files from your computer
  • Change your password and do not share it with anyone

What are the alternatives to peer-to-peer and file-sharing programs?
There are many legal alternatives to downloading content that you haven’t paid for. See Legal Downloading Sites for a list.


Do I need to get permission to use pictures/images/illustrations/figures/data in my dissertation or thesis?
Maybe. Fair use checklists may help you determine what kind of permissions you need.

Do I need to register my dissertation or thesis in order to have copyright protection?
You own the copyright to your dissertation or thesis once it is preserved in a fixed medium, including digital memory. Registering your work with the US Copyright Office provides a public record of your copyright and is required if you seek statutory damages in an infringement lawsuit.