Deciding If You Can Use a Copyrighted Work

If you want to use a copyrighted work, you might not know where to begin. To help reduce the confusion, we recommend that you answer the following 5 questions to help you identify the parts of copyright law that apply to your specific use and how to interpret them.

NOTE: These questions are adapted from the Framework for Analyzing Any Copyright Problem from the online Coursera course Copyright for Educators and Librarians by Kevin Smith, Lisa Macklin, and Anne Gilliland, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license 4.0.

5 Questions to Ask When Using Copyrighted Works 

1. Is the work copyrighted? 

Generally, any work published in the United States before January 1, 1929, is in the public domain and can be used without permission; as of January 1, 2025, the new cutoff date will be January 1, 1930, and in coming years, another year of materials will be removed from copyright protection and added to the public domain. Additionally, in the U.S., works created by employees of the U.S. federal government acting in their official capacity automatically enter the public domain. To see if a work is copyrighted, you can use Peter Hirtle's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain or the Berkeley Law Samuelson Clinic's Public Domain Handbook.

2. Is there a specific exemption in copyright law

Under current copyright law, there are several exemptions that allow for reuse without permission in specific situations: 

3. Is there a license for the use I want to make? 

Licenses are legal contracts and take precedence over copyright law. Licenses can cover works that are copyrighted as well as those in the public domain. In general, licenses dictate whether the use you want to make is allowable. Always check for a license. 

Questions to ask about licenses: 

  • Was the work you want to use published under a Creative Commons License or an Open Source License? If so, you can use the work as long as you follow the terms of the license. 
  • Did you access the work through one of Emory University's subscription databases? These subscriptions have licenses that specify what you can do with the work. 
  • Did you access the work from a website? Websites that provide content like images, film, or music, generally have a terms of use section. Terms of use are licenses. They too specify what you can do with the work you access from the site. 

If you are unsure about how a license affects your use, you can link to the work on the original site. Linking points a user to the work without making an actual copy. One thing to note if you link to a subscription-based resource--the user must have subscription access to that resource to view the material.

4. Is it a fair use? 

Fair Use is an exemption in copyright law outlined in Section 107. However, instead of a specific list of allowed uses, the law provides four factors that must be analyzed and applied to your use to determine whether or not it would be deemed fair by a judge. 

5. Can I get permission from the copyright owner? 

If after reviewing the first four questions, you are still unable to make your use, then you must ask permission of the copyright owner. It is best to get permission in writing so you have documentation of your permitted use. Should you receive verbal permission, make sure to obtain follow-up permission in a letter or email.

Emory's Policy for Showing Movies on Campus 

If you are interested in showing a film on campus, take a look at Emory’s Policy for Showing Movies on Campus

Have a specific “use” question? Contact the Scholarly Communications Office staff at