Sherratt Library

Information Ethics

Knowing how to use information ethically and legally is important to being an information literate individual. With all the information that is available online and in digital format, it is all too easy to use other people's work and call it your own. Although there are provisions for students to use copyrighted material without permission (see Fair Use below) it's important to understand intellectual property rights and the importance of knowing that most works are copyrighted.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property rights are the rights of a creator that control the works he/she has created. This includes, but not limited to, books, articles, music, software, paintings, games, plays, photographs, and movies. According to U.S. law, once a work is created, it is copyrighted. The creator of the work has the right to determine how his/her work may be used.

The following What Do You Think? video (12:44 min.) from the University of Richmond's Intellectual Property Institute, discusses intellectual property and file-sharing, with interviews with college students, and responses from experts on both sides of the issue:


Copyright is one form of intellectual property protection. Essentially, anything created by someone is their property. According to U.S. law (Title 17, section 106 of U.S. Federal law), once a work is created, it is copyrighted, and the personal property of that person. The creator of the work has the right to determine how the work may be used. Copyright law has been developed to establish exclusive rights for a copyright holder.

CopyrightIn general, the copyright holder has the right to make copies, make different versions of the work, and display or perform certain works in public.  Of course, these rights can be purchased or sold.  Individual permission can also be granted by the copyright holder for specific needs and for a specified time period.  For example, the copyright holder could be contacted for permission to use material on a one time basis.  It is up to the copyright holder to determine if they will grant the right to copy or use the material.  If someone exercises one of these rights without the authorization of the copyright holder, it is said the person has committed copyright infringement.

Some things cannot be copyrighted such as most Federal documents, works with expired copyrights, freeware, some clip art, and works published before 1923. Works that cannot be copyrighted are said to be in the public domain; they do not possess copyright protection.  That means anyone may use the works as they wish, without permission.  Books by authors prior to 1923, such as Mark Twain or Shakespeare, are said to be in the public domain and do not have copyright protection.

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

There is often confusion associated with copyright law and plagiarism, and the difference between them. In short, copyright law is legal authority for the copyright holder to the rights described in federal law where plagiarism is the failure to give credit to those who have created the original work. Just because plagiarism has been committed doesn't necessarily mean there is copyright infringement.


Fair Use

One exception to copyright is Fair Use. This exemption allows users of copyrighted works to exercise some of the same rights normally reserved for the copyright holder. Without this exemption, writers would not be able to quote copyrighted material for socially beneficial purposes such as comment, criticism, teaching, scholarship, research, or news reporting.  In order to use the Fair Use exemption, four factors must be considered:

  1. the purpose and character of the 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.

There is a common misconception that any and all copyrighted material that is used for educational purposes of any kind falls under Fair Use. This is an oversimplification, since Fair Use involves an analysis that includes much more than just whether the nature of the use is educational.

Fair Use: What's Okay?

Fair Use: What's Not Okay?

Reference: Fair Use examples adapted from Understanding Copyright, Xavier University