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Copyright for Research: Fair Use and Public Domain

Guide for copyright relating to State DOT research reports

Fair Use

Fair use allows for the use of limited amounts of copyrighted materials for library,educational or research purposes. Because there are no hard and fast rules, each work must be examined based on general criteria:

  • Purpose and character of use (commercial vs. non-profit or educational use)
  • Nature of copyrighted material (factual vs. fiction; published vs. non-published

  • Amount of the portion being used (what percentage of the whole? )

  • Potential effect on future market or value of material

The University of Texas Libraries' Copyright Crash Course states that courts have been refining these guidelines to two basic questions: "Is the use you want to make of another's work transformative -- that is, does it add value to and repurpose the work for a new audience -- and is the amount of material you want to use appropriate to achieve your transformative purpose?"

While classroom use of materials obtained through fair use is covered in the copyright laws, sharing of such materials within a research working group is not.  When the group includes members from both the state DOT and outside organizations, such sharing should be considered carefully, particularly if consultants from private, for-profit companies are involved. Some subscriptions - particularly those involving standards - are very specific about not sharing outside of the agency.  Organizations such as ASTM and AASHTO have the expectation that consultants working for state DOTs and/or using their specification guidelines will purchase standards and publications for their own use. 


Public Domain

Items in the public domain are not protected by copyright laws, and can be used or modified without permissions. Works can enter the public domain because the copyright has expired, or because the author has expressly given up his/her copyright protection to make the item freely available to the public. US federal government publications are considered to be in the public domain, although there are cases where contractors working on a federal document may hold copyright on portions, or all, of the final work. State and local public agencies have the option of using copyright for their publications.

The terms public release, public disclosure and public dissemination are not synonymous with public domain.  These terms refer to the availability and distribution of materials, and copyright can still apply.

State DOT research reports:

While many in the research community assume that reports produced by state DOT research units are in the public domain, this is not the case unless specified. Several states use copyright statements on their reports (see AASHTO SCOR survey on research report copyright and disclaimer language).