Copyright Laws and Citing Sources

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Copyright laws are used to protect the intellectual property created by a person’s mental or creative effort. You may only use copyrighted material as the law allows and must clearly cite the source; otherwise, you could be subject to a fine. If you are using copyrighted material in your business, such as part of a training manual or a company brochure, be sure you use and cite it properly.

What a Copyright Is

Copyright laws protect creative works, such as music, books and art. In the case of a book, for instance, the law gives the writer control over how his book is used, such as making copies of the entire book or individual pages. A photographer can copyright her images to protect them from being sold or used without her permission, such as in an advertising brochure. The owner of the copyright has exclusive rights to control reproduction, distribution, adaptation and public display and performance of his work. To use a copyrighted work, you need the owner’s permission. Two exceptions to that general rule are fair use and public domain.

Fair Use

Fair use means the limited use of copyrighted materials. It allows the legal right to create a limited amount of copies of a copyrighted material without requesting permission from the copyright owner or making royalty payments. Four criteria that determine if the use of the material is for fair use are the nature of the material, amount of the material being used, purpose of the use and how the use affects the market for the original material. For instance, the use of factual data -- a "nature" element -- is likely to be considered fair use. It is also likely to be considered fair use if just one page is being copied, as the amount of material is limited. Use of the material for a nonprofit purpose would probably also be allowed. Use that has little to no impact on the commercial market for the original material also falls under fair use.

Public Domain

Copyrights do expire; when that happens, the material is considered part of the public domain. For example, copyrights expire 70 years after the death of the copyright owner. Some materials are not protected by a copyright, including comprehensive lists like those found in the telephone book and standard, common works, such as a calendar. U.S. government products aren't copyrighted, nor are unoriginal works. Ideas, facts and processes aren't protected by copyright, but they can be patented in some cases.


When you use material from a copyrighted source, you must properly cite it. This identifies where the material was found and shows that the material is not your original idea but is borrowed. You should cite the source for both paraphrased ideas and direct quotes. The citation should include enough information for a reader to be able to locate the original source. Commonly, a book citation includes the book title, author, publisher, edition and year of publication. A magazine citation would show the article title, magazine title, author, publication date, volume number and page(s). To cite a journal article, include the article title, journal title, author, publication date, volume and issue numbers and page(s).

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