Recycling old content can be a very economical business tactic–it certainly has been the strategy behind many of Hollywood's box office successes. For businesses, educational institutions, and charities, using already existing content to draw attention to campaigns, performances, and activities can be a tremendous time saver. However, if you want to use very much of the original content, you will need to find content that is part of the public domain, content you can get permission to use, content which is based on facts (which cannot be copyrighted) or content that you can use in a way that is deemed “fair use.”

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Fair Use

Obviously, getting permission from the original creator is always preferable (you can use a Copyright Request Letter). The creator's permission generally brings with it the most rights and freedoms, and it also prevents later lawsuits. But even if the original creator says no, you might be able to use some content under the fair use doctrine. Fair use is essentially a limited use of a copyrighted work. It can be used for educational purposes, as well as for analysis and reviews. In these cases, you quote the work, properly citing its source, in order to discuss, analyze, or review it.

There is no quota for the amount of content that can be quoted as part of fair use. In part, fair use depends on the length of the work being quoted from. For example, you can use a few lines from a novel without a problem, as long as you include a clear citation of the source. Lines from songs, however, don’t usually qualify as fair use because they're too short. If a songwriter asks you to stop using lyrics from his or her song, even if it's just one line and it's clearly part of the song, you have to stop. However, there are exceptions. It is fair for you to use lyrics from a song, for instance, if your purpose is to produce a parody or satire of the song.

Fair use does not remove any of the creator's rights. You can't claim the work as your own–that would be plagiarism. Attribution has to be given at all times. Educational institutions receive the broadest protections. While they cannot use all of a work without the author's permission or without providing compensation, they can generally use more content than other organizations or individuals. Just remember that what actually constitutes fair use varies with each case, so be cautious, particularly if the work’s creator has expressly asked that you not use his or her work. As a general rule, remember that fair use is not substantive use. It should just be enough to make a point, not to provide a full overview of the piece.

Public Domain

Works in the public domain, on the other hand, are creative works that are not covered by copyright. This includes works that have been in existence long enough that either their creators have been dead for 70 or more years or the copyright protections have lapsed for that length of time. It also includes works produced by the government, which does not copyright its work. When enough time has passed since a work was originally produced, it enters the public domain. If a work is in the public domain, attributions must still be given to the original creator, but anyone can use or even sell the works. So, for example, if you want to use a quotation from Shakespeare in your organization’s promotional materials, you will not have to seek permission to do so. Likewise, you can use government statistics without permission. Many bookstores publish entire books that are in the public domain to help boost their offerings.

Public domain does not fully remove the original creator's rights. Attributions must always be given, but you can change the original pieces significantly. When Pride and Prejudice entered the public domain, dozens of variations appeared, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Pride and Prejudice Pirates, and more. While Jane Austen may not have approved of these modifications, it does not matter from a legal perspective. Her estate cannot press charges against the authors because the books are part of the public domain now and will remain that way.

Get Started Protect your intellectual property Create IP documents and ask a lawyer your questions.

Get Started Protect your intellectual property Create IP documents and ask a lawyer your questions.