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Copyright and Fair Use

Topic Guide that provides information on copyright and fair use, as it pertains to students, faculty, also in relation to Special Collections, DigitalCommons and Course Reserves

Primary Sources, Copyright, and Fair Use

Primary sources are found in a variety of places, including archives and online. Like published sources, primary sources may be under copyright or in the public domain. Primary sources are often considered unpublished works and have a different copyright term (usually the life of the creator + 70 years).

When working with primary sources, determining whether it is ok to use the sources must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Questions to consider:

  • Who is the author/creator of the item?
  • When was it created?
  • Was it ever published? Was it publicly distributed?
  • How are you planning to use it? 
  • Where will it be available after you've submitted it? Will your paper or project be widely available online or only submitted to your instructor? Is it going to be published online or in print at a later time?

Basic Copyright Investigation Steps

Step 1: Determine the status. To help you determine if the item is protected under copyright or in the public domain, check out "Copyright term and the public domain" by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University.

Step 2: If you find that the materials are under copyright, consider if your use is considered fair use.

Step 3: If you determine that the material is still covered under copyright, ask permission to use it.

Special Collections and Archives - More information

Special Collections and Archives at the Robert E. Kennedy Library can help you determine how you can use or request permission for materials found in the archives, as well as using primary sources generally.