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Copyright for Research: Working with our Partners

Guide for copyright relating to State DOT research reports

Copyrighted materials and State DOT Research Reports

Most of our research partners are members of non-profit educational and research facilities, making them eligible to obtain limited amounts of copyrighted materials under fair use provisions in the US Copyright laws.  Section 107 of these laws states: "the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright." That said, there is a fundamental difference between obtaining a report or publication under fair use to obtain information related to current research - or the reproduction of multiple copies of a chart or graph to be used in a classroom situation - and the reuse of an original graphic visualization in a published report with public distribution.

Remember that the purpose of fair use materials is primarily to use the information in a transformative way, to create a new work based on, or making use of existing research. Copyright law does not specifically address the reuse of graphics in the scope of published research reports, and advice varies amongst copyright information sites. NOLO, a commercial site that offers basic business and legal advice, states in rule #4 on this page:, that one would probably be safe in using one chart or graph from a work, but it also stresses that giving attribution to the sources doesn't let one off the hook. Georgetown University Library’s page on “Using images in publications” says of STM publications that different publishers set different standards for how graphs and tables can be used:; some allow for limited fair use, while others require permissions for use of any visual works.

Some things to consider:

  • Where and how am I considering using previously published material in my report? Would it be included in a literature summary, accompanying a description of earlier research?  If so, is it really needed, or could I simply describe the research and point the reader to the original report?
  • How much of the substance of the earlier work does the visualization represent? Does it tie in the major findings of the research, or simply describe a small portion of the work?
  • Could I take the findings and data from the earlier work, and repurpose it based on my research?
  • How difficult would it be to obtain permissions to reuse portions of the original work? Remember that your librarians can help with this process.

If there is wide agreement in the research community that tables, charts and other graphical representations of research data should be available to others for reuse, that agreement should be made obvious to users.  Creative Commons licenses specify exactly how the author is willing to have his/her work used; depending on the terms of contracts between state agencies and research facilities, the organizations can work together to determine what restrictions/permissions to place on the works.

In the absence of such licenses, research reports from state DOTs should be considered copyrighted material, and careful consideration must be given to the reuse of original material, examining whether or not the intent of fair use is being applied.  As public entities, the attitude should always be of placing a higher standard on our work, and avoiding the perception of non-compliance relating to copyright.