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Fair and Unfair Use of Copyrighted Materials

The purpose of a copyright is to protect an author’s property. Copyright law dictates that if you want to quote from or reproduce work created by someone else, you need their permission (or the permission of whomever they have transferred their copyright rights to, such as a publisher). At the same time, the law allows for certain usage that does not require permission – usage that falls within the definition of “fair use.”

Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes.

The doctrine of “fair use” asks anyone quoting or copying the work of others – without seeking permission – to determine if such use really is “fair.” Consider the following conditions:


Using material for educational or research purposes may be “fair use”; most other purposes, including commercial ones, are not.

Value denied the author?

Stealing thunder as well as stealing income is prohibited.


Quoting 150 words from a 30,000-word book may be reasonable; quoting 100 words from an 800-word article is not.


Bolstering your point with a quote may be okay; letting someone else do all the work is not.

Meeting Three Conditions.

To use the materials of others without permission, educators and researchers have some carefully defined leeway. It applies when all three conditions below are met:

  1. If for classroom or research use
  2. And spontaneous
    (You don’t have enough lead time to expect a response to a permission request. WestEd will respond within two weeks, so typically you will have enough time to request permission.)
  3. And one-time
    (“One-time” leaves out training presentations that get used more than once and materials provided to others to take with them to reproduce – for their students, say, or in a training-of-trainers model.)

Fair Use Guidelines.

Publishers and representatives of higher education have collaborated to develop guidelines for acceptable one-time, spontaneous copying or quoting of copyrighted material for educational use without permission (see “Agreement on Guidelines for Classroom Copying in Not-for-Profit Educational Institutions” for full text). For example, the following uses do not require permission from the copyright holder:

Single copy for a single teacher’s or researcher’s one-time use (and specifically not for repeated use):

  • A single chapter from a book.
  • An article from a periodical or newspaper.
  • A short story, short essay, or short poem, whether or not from a collective work.
  • A chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon, or picture from a book, periodical, or newspaper.

Multiple copies for one-time classroom use (and specifically not for repeated use or subsequent copying by others):

  • A complete poem or excerpt of no more than 250 words.
  • A complete article, story, or essay of fewer than 2,500 words, or an excerpt of not more than 1,000 words or 10 percent of the work, whichever is less.
  • One chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon, or picture per source.
  • No consumables (e.g., worksheets, tests).
  • Provided free or for no more than cost.
  • No more than one copy per student.
  • Source and full copyright information on every copy.

How to Cite Works as “Fair Use.”

If you are certain that your use qualifies as “fair use,” please use the following full citation, including the WestEd contact information:

From [title of the original] by [author’s name]. Copyright [year indicated on the original] by WestEd. All rights reserved.

This one-time reproduction for educational purposes of this copyrighted material is covered by “fair use” guidelines. No rights to further reproduce this copyrighted material should be inferred. For more information, contact WestEd Publications at 562-799-5195 or email

Examples of When You Need Permission.

If your use of copyrighted material is not permitted under “fair use” provisions, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder. For example:

  • Your use would borrow from the work of others beyond purposes of review, criticism, or help in making a point.
  • What you hope to borrow represents more than a small amount or proportion of the source material.
  • Your use would diminish the potential value of the source material.
  • You hope to use the copyrighted material in an anthology or reader.
  • You hope to use the copyrighted material in a training program that you will deliver more than once.
  • You hope to provide copies to others with the expectation that they will copy them for their own use in training or classrooms.
  • You hope to provide the copyrighted material to subscribers of an online service or listserv.