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WPI Copyright Policy and Guidance: Copyright Basics

What is Copyright?

Copyright in the U.S. is the right granted by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to an author or other creator to control use of the work created. WPI provides an overview of U.S. Copyright LawThe library can assist you in discovering materials that are in the public domain and other legal ways of using works for your teaching, projects, or publications, and advise you on the use of Creative Commons licenses to enable a range of uses of the work you create.

What is Creative Commons and Open Source Licensing?

The Create Commons logo: Two C's in a circle



As you search for creative works to use in your projects, publications, or teaching materials, you may see Creative Commons licenses attached to these works. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides free licenses that allow the owners of creative works to share their content with the public on their terms. This nonprofit organization offers a number of licenses ranging from "Some Rights Reserved" to public domain.

There are four components of Creative Commons licenses, which can be mixed and matched to create six open licenses.

  • Attribution (BY): Proper attribution must be given to the original creator of the work whenever a portion of their work is reused or adapted. This includes a link to the original work, information about the author, and information about the original work’s license.
  • Share-Alike (SA)Iterations of the original work must be made available under the same license terms.
  • Non-Commercial (NC): The work cannot be sold at a profit or used for commercial means such as for-profit advertising. Copies of the work can be purchased in print and given away or sold at cost.
  • No Derivatives (ND)The work cannot be altered or “remixed.” Only identical copies of the work can be redistributed without additional permission from the creator.

CC attributions vary, therefore you must read the summary of the license to understand how to use the image, texts, videos, music etc.


To add a Creative Commons license to your work:

  1. Choose a Creative Commons license. Use the license chooser, which asks you two simple questions to choose a license.
  2. Add a license statement to your work. The general format is [Name of work] by [name of author] is licensed under a [license name with link to license]. If you're using the license chooser, you can copy the sample statement onto your work. HTML code is also provided for web pages. Downloadable license images are available to include with the statement.​​ For videos, download a free video bumper.
    • ​Note: If you are incorporating works from other sources that have different licenses or would require permission to use elsewhere, indicate which parts of the work are licensed under which CC license. Example: "Unless otherwise noted..."


** Several alternative licenses include GNU General Public License, the MIT License, or other open source licenses.

Related Guides

What is the Public Domain?

According to the US Copyright Office "a work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."

Determining whether a work is in the public domain can be challenging due to changes in copyright law.  This guide from Cornell University Libraries can help you to determine if a work you are considering using is in the public domain: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. You can also consult the Public Domain Calculator (requires Flash).

Some materials that are not protected by copyright are:

  • Most works published by the US federal government, unless stated otherwise
  • Basic data and statistics, although complex expressions of these types of information may be protected
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works not fixed in a tangible form (examples: a theater performance that has not been recorded, a speech given but not written down)

For further information about the public domain see US Copyright Office Circular 1 Copyright Basics.

What is Fair Use?

Fair Use is a defense to an allegation of infringement under the U.S. Copyright Law that permits limited use of portions of a copyrighted work without the copyright owner's permission for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. However, this means an allegation of copyright infringement has been made. 

Section 107 of the Copyright Act establishes four basic factors to be considered in deciding whether a use constitutes fair use. No one factor alone determines a person's right to use a copyrighted work without permission.

For more information about Fair Use, see WPI's Overview of Fair Use.

The flow charts provided in the Faculty and Student sections of this guide may help you determine if Fair Use may apply to your proposed use of copyrighted materials. Please be aware that the Fair Use Doctrine only applies after legal proceedings have commenced.  It is not a preventative measure, instead, it is a defense after a claim of copyright infringement has been alleged.  If you are not sure your use of content would be covered by fair use, or do not want to risk it, then you want to be sure you are working with only copyright-free resources,

U.S. Copyright Office: More on Fair Use

Requesting Permission

When a WPI community member seeks to use or distribute a copyright protected work that is not determined to be fair use, they must seek permission and document that process. Students completing projects or theses that will be made available on the web upon completion, will in many cases need to seek permission from copyright holders.

The steps to seeking permission are:

  1. Determine who owns the copyright. To determine the owner please review the website or publication information or visit the Copyright Clearance Center to search for the copyright holder.
  2. Request permission through one of the following methods:
    • Use the Copyright Clearance Center to pay for specific use of some copyright-protected, published academic works (articles, book chapters, etc)
    • In the case of websites, look for copyright links that provide instructions for requesting permission and follow the guidance provided.
    • Request permission from a copyright holder by letter or email. The letter or email should be brief but include:
      • Who you are.
      • The exact material you would like to use.
      • How you plan to distribute or use it.
      • Where you plan to use it.
      • How long you plan to use it.
    • Consult Columbia University's model permission letters for templates.
  3. Be patient and follow up if you do not hear back after your first request.
  4. Document your process and keep records. In the case of images, when using in a project or thesis be sure to include a note with your images indicating that copyright permission has been granted.

For further information about requesting permission, see WPI's Requesting Permission page.