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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Finding and Using Creative Commons Works

Learn how to incorporate Creative Commons licensed materials into your research and other projects.

Copyright Law

Congress has the power, “…to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8

Copyright law was written into the United States Constitution to incentive authors and creators to share their work in order to promote science and art. Copyright provides protections for "original works for authorship" that are "fixed in any tangible medium of expression (17 U.S.C. § 102(a)). The law grants several exclusive rights to the creator that can be granted to other parties so that they may make use of the work.


What works are protected?

Works must be both fixed and original to be protected by copyright. Fixed means the work is recorded in some tangible medium that can be shared. Original means the work is unique, not a copy of another work. Copyright is applied as soon as the work is fixed and does not need to be registered to be protected.


Protected works include:

  • Literature
  • Music compositions
  • Dramatic works
  • Choreography
  • Visual works
  • Motion pictures
  • Audio recordings
  • Architectural designs

What rights are protected by copyright?

Copyright consists of a bundle of several rights that belong to the copyright owners. These rights can be shared with others through licenses. Copyright law requires you to determine whether you need permission from the copyright owner before engaging in any of the following uses of a copyright material:

  • Reproduce - make copies of the work
  • Make derivatives - alter the work to create a new version
  • Distribute - share copies of the work
  • Display the work publically
  • Perform the work publically
  • Transmit the work (in the case of recordings)

Can I use copyrighted materials in my own work?

Sometimes it is not necessary to ask the copyright owner for permission before using a work. If the work is in the Public Domain, it is no longer protected by copyright and can be used freely. Use of a work may also be considered a Fair Use, which can be used as a defense in cases of copyright infringement. There are also several exemptions written in the copyright law for teaching and educational purposes.

Creative Commons licenses are one of the most straight-forward ways to know whether you are able to use a copyright materials. Works that make use of these licenses clearly indicate which rights the copyright holder is willing to share with users.

Questions about whether you can use a copyrighted materials? Email Sara Benson, Copyright Librarian, at