[Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is provided for student guidance only and should not be construed as legal advice. Copyright and fair use questions are inherently fact-specific and must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Questions from the university community about copyright law may be addressed to the Office of the General Counsel.]

Copyright law is intended to protect the intellectual property rights of authors while facilitating the use of their work in the purpose of creating new work. If I write a book, for example, on the mating habits of giraffes, I have the right to receive royalties from the sale of the book, but my readers have the unrestricted right to draw upon my ideas in devising their own theories of mammalian courtship behavior. In the words of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work."1

Anyone who creates an original work, whether it is a term paper, a novel, a website, a photograph, or a musical composition, automatically owns the copyright to that work. Others may freely borrow ideas from that work and even reproduce parts of it within an original work of their own, but they are generally not permitted to reproduce the work in its entirety or use it in any fashion that undermines the commercial viability of the copyrighted work. This is why it is legal to quote passages from a play by Arthur Miller in an essay on contemporary drama, but would be illegal to stage even an amateur production of the play without a license from the copyright owner. This why it is also illegal to make "pirated" copies of musical recordings or computer software: by reproducing the entire work rather than buying one's own copy, one undermines the profitability of the work and infringes the author's copyright.

In most cases, creating a multimedia web site involves "borrowing" a certain amount of content (sounds, images, icons, quoted passages, etc.) from other sources. In addition to providing full attribution for any such borrowings in order to avoid the charge of plagiarism, web authors must insure that their use of such materials does not violate the copyright of their original creators. In general, it is safest to assume that any image, text, or sound one finds on a website is copyrighted, and should be treated accordingly.

The fair use provision of the copyright law provides guidelines for determining whether a given use of copyrighted material is legitimate. It is the responsibility of student authors to take these guidelines into account in determining whether and how to incorporate copyrighted materials within their own websites. The relevant statute reads as follows:


The fair use of a copyrighted work . . . for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching,  . . . scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
(1) The purpose and character of use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) The nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In general, the incorporation of portions of copyrighted works within student projects in an educational setting would be considered a fair use. Quoting selected passages from a written work is not a problem, nor is including illustrative excerpts from an audio recording. The case of images is more complicated, but it is probably safe to assume that reproducing up to two or three images from an artist's work would be acceptable under the law. Note that including a musical work in its entirety or a substantial number of a single visual artist's works would likely be deemed a violation of copyright law.

It is essential, in any case, to credit properly the original source of any copyrighted material incorporated in a web site. The attribution (which should be included in an endnote) should provide a full bibliographic description of the source, including author, title, publisher, and place and date of publication. See the ECE page on Citing Sources for details.

For further information about copyright law, fair use, and their implications within an educational setting, please refer to the following two websites:

University of Michigan Copyright Information Page:  This site provides comprehensive information on every aspect of copyright law and its interpretation as well as various sets of guidelines for the fair use of copyrighted materials of various kinds.

Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia
: This site lays out a widely accepted framework for the interpretation of fair use that is particularly relevant to the case of student web projects. According to the introduction, the "purpose of these guidelines is to provide guidance on the application of fair use principles by educators, scholars and students who develop multimedia projects using portions of copyrighted works under fair use rather than by seeking authorization for non-commercial educational uses."

       1. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Feist Publications, Inc. vs. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340, 349  (1991).

Go on to Plagiarism

ECE Home | Project Showcase | Project Resources | About this Site | Search ECE | Questions and Comments