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U.S. Copyright Office Guide on Common Copyright Issues for Librarians

The United States Copyright Office provides information to both Congress and the public. This guide points librarians to resources which help answer common questions about copyright.


United States Copyright Office

What is the United States Copyright Office?

For over 150 years, the Copyright Office has been at the forefront of U.S. copyright. As part of the Library of Congress since 1870, and recognized by Congress as a separate department of the Library since 1897, the Copyright Office registers copyright claims, records information about copyright ownership, provides information to the public, and assists Congress and other parts of the government on a wide range of copyright issues, both simple and complex. Through this work, the Copyright Office is committed to helping fulfill the copyright's Constitutional purpose and to promote creativity and free expression for the benefit of all. Learn more about the Office on our website.


This guide points to different types of sources to answer common questions. U.S. copyright law, Copyright Office regulations, and relevant case law in your jurisdiction are the main sources of information. This guide also provides links to the Office's website, which includes the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, various informational Circulars, and videos External.

Using Copyright-Protected Works

Diagram version of the "Can I Use It" guide
View the "Can I Use It?" guide from the U.S. Copyright Office (PDF)

We've learned that librarians often wonder how to use creative works as part of their programming and are asked similar questions by patrons. In the "Can I Use It?" guide, we explore how to approach these questions when you intend to use someone else's work. 

This one-page guide is intended for copyright information purposes only. You may need to consider other laws when determining whether you may use a particular work. This analysis should be conducted on a case-by-case basis.  A text and graphic version of this guide are provided here.

Can I Use It?

Is it protected by copyright?

See United States Code (USC) Title 17, Sections 105, 301–305. If it is not protected by copyright, you can use it–it’s in the public domain.

If it is protected by copyright:

Ask "Does the use qualify for any exceptions or limitations?" If not, get permission. If it does, you can use it.

Exceptions and Limitations in Copyright Law

Common exceptions include Fair Use, as defined by USC, Title 17, Section 107 and the Fair Use Index. Be careful when relying on fair use. Fair use is a case-by-case four factor balancing test, and only a judge may make an ultimate determination on whether a particular use is a fair use. Other exceptions are for Libraries and Archives (See USC, Title 17, Section 108) and the First Sale Doctrine (See USC, Title 17, Section 109). Other exceptions and limitations are in USC Title 17, Sections 110 to 122.