Some students erroneously believe that that they can use as much of a copyrighted work as they want, as long as they cite it properly. Certainly, proper documentation is important, especially in terms of avoiding plagiarism; however, one also needs to adhere to copyright law to avoid infringement (see, “Copyright Basics”).
Since there are no fixed rules with regard to how much of a particular work one can use, it’s important to perform a fair use analysis if there is any question. One should also be aware that copyright is medium neutral; in other words, it applies to all forms of fixed media—film, images, audio recordings, websites, etc. (See “Multimedia” for information on using non-text media).
If you are writing a paper for a class and have no intention of publishing it, you have much greater latitude as far as what you can use. Remember, however, that fair use is a concept in copyright law, and that it does not alter your academic obligation to provide proper citation for works that you use. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different things (see “Avoiding Plagiarism”). For assistance on how to cite your work, see the University Writing Program.
Students writing a thesis/dissertation should be extremely conscientious in their use of sources, since the work will be publicly accessible upon completion. The standards are, therefore, similar to writing for publication; however, the burden for adhering to copyright law and fair use falls almost entirely on the student. There is no “publisher” to verify the legitimate use of works included in your thesis/dissertation. If you use non-text media, such as photos, images, graphs, or diagrams, you must obtain permission unless the source specifically gives you permission (See “Obtaining Permission”).
Note that each graduate program has unique requirements with regard to format and citation style. Consult the graduate handbook for your program. In addition, you are required to submit an electronic copy of your final thesis/dissertation to the Library (See “Theses and Dissertations Publishing Guidelines”).
If you are writing a book or article for publication, your publisher may want you to obtain permission for the use of all copyrighted material; even uses that you may think are fair. Because every publisher has its own policy on what it considers to be legally safe, it would be impractical for you to try to clear rights before you receive an offer for publication. However, you should be aware that you may be responsible for clearing permissions for publication and that there may be a cost associated with acquiring those rights.
Content adapted from “Using Copyrighted Material," University of Michigan Library. Used under a Creative Commons license.