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Copyright and Plagiarism For Students



Copyright is a form of protection given to authors of creative works like music, movies, books, and photographs. Chances are, if you are using material that you did not create yourself, it's copyrighted. The unauthorized use of copyrighted material is considered infringement — a violation.

For more information on what copyright means to you as a student, see the Penn State Copyright Portal.

Under copyright law, if you don't own the copyright to a work, you cannot do the following without permission from the copyright holder:

  • Reproduce copies of the work
  • Create derivitive works based on the work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

Fair Use

Put simply, fair use is an exception to infringe­ment. It's the use of copyrighted material without the authorization of the owner for an expressive purpose (i.e., quoting information from an article in your research paper). Examples of fair uses include commentary, criticism, or parody.

Before you use copyrighted works, consider the four fundamental factors of fair use and determine whether, on balance, they favor your use more than the author's protection (these factors are from the U.S. Code Title on Copyright):

  • What is the character of the use?
    How are you using the material? Does it contribute to the educational message/content of your research paper/project?
  • What is the nature of the work that you are using?
    Is it fact-based or highly expressive?
  • How much of the work will you use within your research paper/project?
    Are you using only a small portion of the work, e.g., a short video clip or a quote from an article?
  • What effect would this use have on the market for the original or for permissions if the use were widespread?
    Is the copyrighted work you're using out of print or unavailable? Would your use compete with the original?

Applying the above factors, you can see that many works created for class assign­ments would fall under fair use. Use the four factors and review them to see how they apply to your specific situation.

Fair Use Summary

  • Limited Time
  • Limited Material
  • Limited Audience
  • For Critique, Education, or Satire
  • Protects Commercial Value of Work


Copyright infringement and plagiarism are different concepts entirely. Plagiarism is claiming that you are the author of someone else's work. Copyright infringement is using someone else's work without their permission (and outside the boundaries of fair use). It is your responsibility to understand what plagiarism is and know how to avoid it. The following resources offer some information and guidance.

  • Penn State Academic Integrity Training
    This series of modules provides a basic definition of academic integrity and explain practically how to avoid plagiarism, cheating, and other academic integrity violations.

  • Plagiarism & You - University Libraries/Library Learning Services 
    This interactive tutorial will show you how to use information correctly without plagiarizing. You will learn how to recognize plagiarism, and how to tell the difference between plagiarism and appropriate use of information in research papers.