• How to Avoid Plagiarism: Copyright and Creative Commons

    Bad idea. Don't plagiarize, ever.

    Maybe you've heard of the public domain, copyright laws, and other aspects of media intended to help free up use and promote creative innovation and idea protection.

    Do you need to cite sources that are free to use?

    The short answer is YES! 

    Even if something is free use, most of the time the author will at least want credit for their work. Check what kind of license the item is under. Some require citation and others may not. Talk to your professor for specifics on what exactly you need to provide citations for in your assignments however. They may only want citations for written works and not images, or perhaps want links for all media used in a particular work.

     Once you leave college, it will be important to be sure that the media you're using is correctly cited. There can be unfortunate consequences for both you and your future employer if you use tools that have not been properly credited or obtained. Learn more about public domain, creative commons, and potential citations below.


    Did you know that once you make something tangible (a song, a movie, even a doodle) that you own the copyright to it? Copyright help's protect a creator's rights, ensuring that individuals receive proper credit for their creations. In addition to copyright, there are also trademarks and patents. Trademarks apply to brands (like Nike's Just Do It slogan or the famous McDonald's arches) and patents apply to inventions and methods. While a lot can fall under trademarks, basic facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted. Government Documents also do not fall under copyright law. Check out the video below for more information:


    Fair Use

    Maybe you've heard of the phrase 'Fair Use' or exceptions to copyright rules before. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're in the clear to use a particular copyrighted work. While Fair Use is there to lessen the rigidity of copyright claims, there is no one size fits all to Fair Use, only types of exceptions that fall under it's usage. Whether it's the court system, or Youtube reviewing a video for a false copyright claim, you may have to show evidence that your cause falls under Fair Use. Some exceptions that Fair Use allows are:

    • Purpose-If your intent is not to make money (noncommercial) or for education, Fair Use is more likely to be awarded.
    • Transformative-Does your interpretation of a copyrighted work change or alter the meaning to be different from the original creator? (One example could be making a meme from a pre-existing image. Whatever the image's intent, now it has likely shifted from serious to humorous, changing the work and transforming it into a new creation.)
    • Parody-If you like to watch comedy skits, you've likely seen a parody before. TV shows, like Saturday Night Live, often poke fun at copyrighted works like movies or other TV programming. These parodies comment on the original work in some way. As parody is not possible without referencing a previous original work, it falls under Fair Use.
    • Commentary-This is why many reaction style Youtube videos are allowed to remain on the platform. Oftentimes the reactor will comment on a situation, providing their input, humor, or expertise that would usually not be there. This transforms the work, creating collaboration between two different creators when there was originally one. 
    • Percentage-How much of the copyright work are you referring to? If you use a 30 second clip of copyrighted music in a video critiquing that song, that is likely going to afford you more protection than playing the whole song without stopping. 
    • Profit-Are you taking money away from the original copyright holder with what you have produced? You likely won't get sued by Nintendo for using iron on t-shirt paper to make a Mario t-shirt for yourself. However, if you begin to produce and sell large quantities of those shirts without obtaining the image rights, you could wind up in legal trouble.

    Public Domain

    The public domain is essentially works that have either aged out of or have never been copyrighted, meaning anyone can use them. Think of stories like Hamlet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or Sherlock Holmes. These stories were published before copyright law came into place and are thus in the public domain. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that only older literature can be in the public domain. More modern pieces can also meet the requirements, depending on the circumstances. The famous zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, for instance is in the public domain due to a clerical error.

    Before you cite, edit, or otherwise alter a piece of public domain media, be sure you have the correct version. Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women is in the public domain, however you cannot copy and distribute the 2019 film adaptation of the same name as that is under separate copyright. Even if you don't use direct clips, your adaptation could potentially encounter trouble if it too closely resembles a pre-existing version. For instance, there are several adaptations of the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast in modern media. Many of the images and iconography are going to be similar since they come from the source material, however if your adaptation appears much too close to Disney's 1991 version and can be proven as such, you could wind up in legal and financially trouble. Check out this video for more information:

    Project Gutenberg

    If you are interested in reading online books that are in the public domain, check out Project Gutenberg at the link below:


    Public Domain Books in Our Collection


    Call Number: PR6037.T617 D7 1997b

    The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

    Call Number: PZ7.B327 Won 2000

    (Curriculum Room)

    The Picture of Dorian Gray

    Call Number:  PR 5819 .P5 2010

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


    Access Here

    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

    Call Number:  PS1305 .A1 

    Creative Commons

    What is Creative Commons? Creative Commons allows you to publish an item that is open for public use with some particular specifics that you (or the previous owner if you have created a transformative work) decide on. There are a few different options for Creative Commons, which can be accessed at their website here. The concept can be very beneficial, especially in educational contexts. Using images, videos, etc. made under CC can help spread art, help innovate with new resources, and can be beneficial for creators if you want a large potential audience for your work.

    This image is available under Creative Commons. However the creator has licensed it under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) Creative Commons license. That means that we can share this photo and remix it (like using editing software, putting it in a video, etc.). However, the author also requested they get credit and that we don't use the photo for commercial purposes (like selling shirts that have the graphic on it).

    Valle de la luna - La Paz, Bolivia. by Mikel Pierre is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Open Educational Resources

    Open Educational Resources (or OER) also go hand in hand with Creative Commons usage. These are free educational tools, modules, videos, and other resources that are either in the public domain or fall under Creative Commons, meaning you can edit and rearrange the information within to best suit your needs. Whether you are putting together a project for class, are an Education major, or simply want to access more information at no cost, there are many great resources with which to do so. Just remember that while a particular OER piece may be free, you may still have to credit the creator or the creators of specific media within (like photos on a webpage), before successfully sharing your finished project.

    Some resources for finding OER include: