Using Copyrighted and Library Content

Find out how you can legally and ethically use copyrighted and library content in your academic research, instruction, essays & writings, and creative projects. Legal disclaimer: this copyright guide is meant for informational & educational purposes only.

Library Research Guide

Using Others' Content in Your Academic Work


This page will assist you in understanding how to legally and ethically find and reuse others' content in your academic work as well as in theses, dissertations, and Master's reports (TDRs). Such content could include text, images, figures, graphs, sound clips, and video recordings.

The content and resources provided here apply to anyone reusing content in academic work in the U.S. and are not specific to K-State. However, K-State students should be aware that they must comply with U.S. copyright law and the K-State Honor Pledge.

Follow the steps below in chronological order to know how to legally reuse others' works in your academic work and TDRs.



Public Domain symbol

This image depicts "ferruginous varition" from a geology paper published in 1868

Example of a public domain image.
Image from an academic paper,
published 1868.

1. Find content in the public domain.

Public domain content is free to use, because the copyright term has either expired or the work never had copyright protection. Therefore, there is no need to proceed to the next steps if you are using a work in the public domain.

The following categories of works are not subject to copyright protection in the United States:

  • Works that do not qualify for copyright protection in the U.S. (see below for explanation).
  • Works published before 1923.
  • Works created by the U.S. Government
    • Must be prepared "by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties" (17 U.S.C. § 101 - Definitions).
    • If prepared by an outside contractor, the copyright may still reside with the contractor/creator.
  • Some works created by state governments in the U.S.
    • Varies by state laws and by department. Check the department's website for a copyright notice or a statement that the work is not subject to copyright protection.

Works that Do Not Qualify for Copyright Protection in the U.S.

Three conditions must be met for works to qualify for copyright protection in the U.S.:

  1. Creativity
  2. Originality
  3. Fixed in a tangible medium of expression (physical or digital)

Raw data, tables, graphs, and charts often do not qualify copyright protection in the United States, because they merely represent data or facts. However, some types of data can qualify for copyright protection, such as photos taken in the field by an anthropologist. Photos generally do have at least a minimal level of creativity and originality.

For the majority of data and data representations, an individual usually enters data into a software program. The individual can then generate a graph or some other data visualization with the same program or another program. Although this may require technical skill, it does not mean that someone created something original (i.e., from their own imagination or mind). Rather, facts and data are discovered and then recorded. A graph, table, chart, or visual representation of a molecule is merely a depiction of data and facts.

A unique data visualization can potentially have copyright protection if it does have considerable creativity and originality. Infographics are a good example of this. You can read the "Copyrightability of Tables, Graphs, and Charts" for more information (linked in the list below).

Public Domain Resources


Creative Commons Icon

2. Find Creative Commons Licensed (CCL) content.

CCL content can easily be used in your academic work and ETDRs without the need to rely on fair use or seek permission. Just be sure to comply with the CCL Terms of Use (see linked resource below the soybean leaf image).

For example, all the licenses require attribution, which is as simple as including an in-text citation and/or attribution to the source in a reference list.

The caption below this image is an example of a CCL image with in-text citation/attribution.

Bacterial pustule-infected soybean plants

Bacterial pustule-infected soybean plants
Image courtesy of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, CC BY-NC

Creative Commons Resources


"Fair Use" Text above the Balance of Law Scales Image
Image courtesy of OpenClipArt-Vectors,

CC0, adapted by Rachel Miles

3. Rely on fair use.

Academics frequently rely on fair use when using others' copyrighted material in their scholarly works. Even when they paraphrase and reference another's work, they are technically relying on fair use. Linked below are resources to help you when relying on fair use.

Quick Tips:

  • Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act
  • Be sure you have a legal copy of the content you are using.
  • Ensure that the copyrighted work you are using is crucial to your educational, scholarly, or creative objective.
  • If the resource can easily be replaced by another resource that is in the public domain or has a CCL, it is probably not fair use.

Consider the four factors of fair use in a balanced and holistic manner when you make a fair use evaluation. Fair use is considered the "golden rule" of U.S. copyright law, so consider how your intended use may affect the copyright holder's originally intended use.

In addition, consider whether you can answer "yes" to these three questions:

  1. Does the copyrighted material help me make my new point?
  2. Will it help my readers or viewers get my point?
  3. Have I used no more than is needed to make my point? (Is it “just right”?)

If you answered "yes" to these three questions, you have a stronger argument for being in favor of fair use.



Fair Use Resources



Permission Granted Stamp

Image adapted from

4. Request permission.

  •  Be sure to specify that the content will be used in your scholarly work(s).
  • Specify the amount being used, whether the use is a one-time use or a frequent/repeated use, and whether your use is an open use (i.e., it is available online to anyone with an Internet connection).
  • Be sure to archive all permission letters, even if it's just an email granting you permission. Only written permission is legal permission; verbal permission will not hold up in a court of law.

Permission Requests Resource