Skip to Main Content


Best Practices for Using Copyrighted Materials

These best practices are intended to help you avoid violating the U.S. copyright law. This advice applies to books, book chapters, journal articles, documents on Websites, videos, and other materials. Assume that everything is copyrighted unless you definitely determine it is not.  

Use of Materials Best Practices What to Avoid
Personal use of materials

Save a link in citation management software, make a paper copy for your files or download one copy to your password protected computer.

Keep your personal copy private!  If you prefer using an online site for storing documents make sure only you have access to them and see what the online service allows you to do in the terms of agreement or users license.

Check out our tipsheet on creating links to Journal Articles.

Posting a copy of the document to a public website or where other people have access, that can include Facebook, Google Drive or other open file sharing services, or placing it in a database or on a server where other people have access to it.

Sharing materials with others, including fellow students Send a link to an online document, book chapter, etc., or send them a citation  Posting anything to a public Website or files sharing service where other people have access without signing in with their Duke NetID.
Need to share materials for a class or project Send out a link or post the link on the class site (BlueDocs, Sakai, etc.) which is password protected.  You can also bring paper copies to the class or group meeting. Sending a PDF out via email, posting the PDF on an online site, sharing a flash drive with a copy of the PDF.
Required readings for a class Work with your faculty member to help make required readings more accessible.  Faculty members can post links and PDFs to course sites.  Your faculty member can work with the Library on providing access to materials.  Sending a PDF out via email, posting the PDF on an online site, sharing a flash drive with a copy of the PDF.
Receiving a copy from someone else Assume the work is copyrighted and that you do not have permission to post it or share it with others.  Be careful about saving and storing pirated works as well.  A single article may not be a problem, but an entire book or video would clearly violate copyright laws.  Saving and sharing pirated works.  Unless someone has obtained permission from the copyright owner or is not covered by the copyright law, the person may not have permission to give you or anyone else a copy.
Sharing materials on file sharing sites Seek permission from the copyright owner before posting a digital copy of anything.  Assume that everything on a file sharing site is protected under copyright and assume it may NOT be legal to download it unless the person posting the item clearly states that they have obtained full permission from the copyright holder to share the document.  Downloading documents or files of materials created by others from file sharing sites since there is a high likelihood it has been pirated.
Seeking permissions to post materials Continue to use links to online materials!  Seeking permission can be time consuming since often it is a publisher who owns the copyright and not the author who turned their rights over to the publisher.  It can also be costly if the copyright owner, especially a publisher, wants to charge fees for the use of the materials. Assuming that an author owns the copyright!  Double-check to see if you need to be working with the publisher instead.


File Sharing

File Sharing is restricted by two laws:the Higher Education Opportunity Act which has provisions to reduce the illegal uploading and downloading of copyrighted work, and the U.S. Copyright Law which provides the copyright owner with the rights to distribute their work.

File Sharing Sites and Terms of Use

  • Read the "Terms of Use" or user agreements when signing up for an online file sharing or online document service
  • Most "terms of use" forbid copyright infringement and other activities that may create civil or even criminal liability
  • Some sites clearly state that you must be the copyright owner or have the legal permission of the copyright owner to post content that you do not own
  • If you agree to the terms of use and then post materials that violate the copyright law, the file sharing site will NOT be held responsible.  You will be considered the violator and subject to possible legal actions.

Duke Policies

Using Duke's electronic resources

Content available through Duke electronic resources are ALL covered by copyright -- books, journals, Web-based learning tools, databases, etc. It might not be apparent, but when you use a scholarly journal, ebook or database on Duke's campus, your access to that resource has been paid for by the Duke libraries. 

The Duke libraries license this content through a legal contract which says who can use the materials (authorized users) and how they can be used. The licensing agreement is a legally binding contract that may supersede copyright law in some cases.

What can you do with these electronic resources?

  • Download or print a copy for personal use
  • Post the links on class Websites or blogs -- the links limit the use to authorized users but everyone on campus or on the Duke network has access!
  • Usually share a single copy of the PDF with a colleague at Duke or at another institution (but not a whole group of colleagues)
  • Use articles and book chapters for class e-reserves and often coursepacks (contact your faculty member about these)

 What you may NOT do with these electronic resources?

  • Download an entire book, journal issue or volume, or the entire content of a digital file
  • Post the PDF or copy of the material on a public or shared online site or database, including file-sharing sites
  • Distribute the PDF or a copy of the article on social media, websites, email lists, or through digital media formats

Will the publishers ever know if I do any of these things?

  • Publishers track the use of their electronic materials
  • Publishers spot substantial downloads of books, journal articles and database content
  • Most journals add a digital watermark to their articles showing where the article came from  -- look at the bottom of the PDF, you may see something like "Duke University downloaded on 08/22/2017
  • Some publishers embed other digital markers in their articles so they can track them across the Internet
  • Publishers report these problems to Duke libraries or they can contact Duke legal counsel
  • Sharing a password to a resource, especially with someone not at Duke, also violates the University's computer policies
  • Publishers and Duke can often identify the user through their email or IP address

What will happen if there is a problem?

  • The publisher/copyright owner usually contacts the library and asks us to immediately stop the violation.
  • The library will contact you about the problem and take the necessary actions to resolve the violation.
  • Duke's compliance offices and legal counsel can get involved, along with deans and department chairs.
  • Some publishers will terminate access to all of their products for the entire University immediately -- yes this has happened!
  • Duke could be at risk of losing all its access to the resource on a short-term or long-term basis if the abuse continues.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty that occurs when someone uses the words, expressions, ideas, opinions, or findings of another without giving proper credit to the original source. It is a breach of scholarly procedures that is considered unethical and which may result in disciplinary or legal action against the person committing the offense. Even if someone's use of a work is not a violation of copyright law, it may still be an act of plagiarism if the work has not been properly acknowledged and cited.

Plagiarism Resources: