Navigating the rules of copyright can be a little tricky.  As students, you’ve probably heard about copyright, plagiarism, and fair use.

What is copyright?

This is the definition from the United States Copyright office:

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

While copyright protects all original works of authorship, it does not protect facts or ideas.  So the statement “calcium and vitamin D promote bone health” cannot be copyrighted. Copyright may however protect the way in which facts or ideas are expressed.

When promoting health and nutrition, you may run into copyright issues where you least expect it.  Notice the difference in these two copyright notices, one from the American Heart Association and one from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.  While both sites promote education, the AHA strongly restricts the use of its material while the NHLBI has few limitations.  The NHLBI is funded by the United States government, and work of the US government is not subject to copyright.  For more on that, check out this explanation of rights to U.S. government works.

What about fair use?

Again from the US Copyright Office:

Section 107 of copyright law contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Here is what I consider to be an example of fair use, to explain the importance of copyright, I am including the following passage from The Ohio State University Office of the Chief Information Officer website:

In very general terms, a particular use of a work is “fair” if it involves only a relatively small portion of the work, is for educational or other noncommercial purposes, and is unlikely to interfere with the copyright owner’s ability to market the original work. A classic example is quoting a few sentences or paragraphs of a book in a class paper. Other uses may also be fair, but it is almost never fair to use an entire work, and it is not enough that you aren’t charging anyone for your particular use. It also is not enough simply to cite your source (though it may be plagiarism if you don’t).

This is a section of the complete work, I’m making it clear that it belongs to someone else, and giving full credit to where I found the information. Interestingly, OSU has pulled this article. It was once available here-

Images and copyright

So you need to make a presentation, and you want it to be visually interesting and compelling.  Of course you do!  You search the internet and find great pictures, and you’re ready to copy them into your project.  You may be thinking, “this is for education, so taking images off the internet counts as fair use!”  Well, yes, taking a portion of the complete work and using it may be construed as fair use.  But how helpful is this portion of an image?

Photo credit: fractl from

Not very instructive is it?  The entire image is much easier to understand, as will be the case with any image you need for class or work.  For this reason, it’s best practice to find an image labeled for re-use, or an image explicitly stated as available for use.  See my Image Search page for a listing of search engines to help you find images licensed for reuse.  As it happens, this full image is available for use without attribution:

References and resources:

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