What Needs Citing?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain best practices for using and citing copyrighted and openly licensed materials

Know What Needs a Citation

The key to avoiding plagiarism is to make sure you give credit where credit is due. This may be credit for something somebody said, wrote, emailed, drew, or implied. You need to give credit to the creator of any of the following:

Integrate: never plagiarize, provide context, quote, summarize, and paraphrase.

Figure 1. Checklist for integrating sources into your research paper.

  • Any words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person face-to-face, over the phone, or in writing
  • Any media, including diagrams, illustrations, images, charts, pictures, audio, or video that you reprint, reuse, or report

Ultimately, you must cite any source of information you use in your paper that doesn’t originate with you. You do NOT need to cite:

  • your own words, ideas, and opinions
  • common knowledge and facts

Examples of common knowledge or facts include:

  • Basic facts: there are 365 days in a year, the earth orbits the sun, the molecular structure of water (H2O), etc.
  • Very well-known quotes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You still have to use quotation marks and indicate who said the quote (Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and John F. Kennedy, respectively), but you do not need to include the source in your bibliography.

Try It

Decide what counts as common knowledge in the following activity.


What of these following facts needs a citation?

  1. 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.
  2. The Supreme Court ruling for Brown v. the Board of Education states, “Racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional.”
  3. Paris is the Capital of France.
  4. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States of America.
  5. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. 52,950 unaccompanied homeless youth were supported through school-based programs in 2008-09.

Citation Versus Copyright

Issues of citation go beyond just plagiarism. Anytime you pull in outside resources into your writing (or into a presentation or project of any sort), you should properly cite outside materials. Sometimes citing outside works is not sufficient, and there are materials you are not permitted to use at all—materials that are copyrighted.

Copyright is a form of legal protection automatically provided to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works.

U.S. copyright law generally gives the author/creator or owner of an original creative work an exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (copy) or distribute the original work to the public (e.g., create and sell copies of a film)
  • Create new works based upon the original work (e.g., make a movie based on a book)
  • Perform or display the work publicly (e.g., perform a play)

Plagiarism and Copyright

Plagiarism and copyright each address the legitimacy of copying, but plagiarism and copyright differ in important ways.

Plagiarism is the act of misrepresenting the ownership of an idea. In school, it usually means passing off someone else’s ideas as your own in a research paper or other academic work. Plagiarism is wrong, dishonest, and can lead to serious negative consequences in any school or professional setting. One way to avoid plagiarism is to properly cite your sources – a key academic skill.

By contrast, copyright is a legal concept extensively embodied by U.S. laws and policies. Copyright law permits individuals to make copies under certain conditions, but violating certain copyright rules is copyright infringement. You can’t avoid a copyright infringement claim just by citing your sources (though it may still be the right thing to do). If you violate one or more of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner, the copyright owner can bring a claim against you for copyright infringement. They could potentially prosecute, issue a cease-and-desist letter or takedown notice, or sue.

While working with other people’s copyrighted works, remember that their works are under copyright protection from the moment of creation. Typically, copyright protection extends for 50-100 years after the creator of the work dies.

Additionally, U.S. Copyright Law applies to works found on the Internet. Many of the works you find online are protected by copyright, even if there is no copyright notice. Your ability to access copyrighted materials on the Internet does not necessarily mean that you have the right to use, reuse, and/or distribute the works in any manner you wish. It is important to respect copyright, whether the works are in a physical or digital format.

There are several limits on copyrights; we’ll look at a few—fair use, public domain works, and openly licensed materials.

Fair Use

Fair Use allows the public to use portions of copyrighted work without permission from the copyright owner.

Are you incorporating any materials in your research final product that were created by someone else, such as images or text from other works? These materials could be protected by copyright. For example, content you find online, text, books, movies, songs, email, images, and videos are most likely copyrighted. Fortunately, U.S. copyright law includes an exception that allows you to use copyrighted work in your assignments for class.

However, if you would like to share your research product outside of the classroom (such as on a webpage or blog or in your portfolio), you will need permission from the copyright owner(s) unless your use is covered under another statutory exception. Fair use is one such exception, and it can apply to a wide variety of uses.

To decide whether a use is considered fair use, courts look at four factors:

  1. Purpose & character of the use, including whether commercial (i.e. publishing a book) or non-commercial (i.e. using in a classroom assignment)
    • It is generally permitted to use a work under fair use if it has been transformed from the original use for which it was created. There are two ways in which a use can be transformative:
      • First, you could actually make changes to the original work in order to use it for a new purpose. An example would be to take short clips of popular movies and remix them to create a video for the purpose of social commentary or presentation.
      • The second form of transformative use does not require that you alter the original work in any way. Instead, you simply use the work for a purpose that is significantly different than the use for which it was created. An example of this would be using clips from a blockbuster movie that was originally sold for mass-market entertainment for the purpose of instruction and research.
  2. Nature of the original material (i.e., is the work published or unpublished? Fact or fiction? Highly creative?)
  3. Amount and substantiality of the original work (are you using the entire work or just a portion?) Under fair use, using a small portion of a work is often permissible.
  4. Effect on the marketplace or on the work’s value (will your use have a financial impact on the creator?) For example, would people buy this work instead of the original?

When considering whether a proposed use of a copyrighted work may qualify as fair use, you must weigh all four factors together. Each factor is equally important.

Link to learning

YouTube and other hosting sites will usually flag and remove copyrighted content. This video from vidIQ explains if and when it’s okay to use copyrighted music in a YouTube video. In short, the answer is that it’s not a good idea. Instead, find public domain or openly sourced music. YouTube offers a library of free music, or you can search the Internet for public domain or openly licensed music.

Public Domain

Public Domain works can be freely used by anyone, for commercial or non-commercial purposes, and without permission from an original copyright owner/author. Public domain status allows the user unrestricted access and unlimited creativity! These works may be designated for free and unlimited public access, or they may be no longer covered by copyright law because the copyright status has expired or been forfeited by the owner.

What Is Licensing?

Licensing is when a copyright owner gives permission for someone else to do something normally restricted by copyright law. For example, the creator of a song may license a song to an advertising agency, allowing the ad company to use parts of her song in a television commercial in exchange for compensation.

Sometimes a creator may want to give everybody the permission to make copies of his or her work. For example, some musicians want fans to make copies and share their songs, so they license their songs in a way that gives others explicit permission to copy and share them. One increasingly common set of licenses that exist for this purpose are Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons Licensing

Not everyone wants to lock up their creativity behind the protection of copyright; many people want their work to be freely shared and even built upon. When these works are released for educational purposes, they are called Open Educational Resources, or OER. This text you are reading now is an example of OER.

Creative Commons (CC) was developed out of the desire to make it easier to share and use copyrighted works. Creative Commons allows a creator to grant licenses to their work that could include the ability to share, adapt, and/or use material for commercial purposes without having to ask for permission. The creators still own the copyright, but they proactively decide to let others use their works under certain conditions.

Link to Learning

Many websites include CC-licensed works. You can search them to find materials that you can freely use in creating your own work provided that you comply with the terms of the license. You can also upload your own CC-licensed works to share with others.

Examples include:

Citing openly licensed materials, whether they’re images or videos or textbooks, is often referred to as “attribution” in the OER world. To “attribute” something, you are giving credit. It’s the same idea as “citing”—just a different term for it. Citing OER is done by following the licensing requirements and including as much information you an about the source.

The basic attribution format is:

Title — Author — License

You may want to use the Open Attribution Builder form from Open Washington to help you build consistent and concise attributions for citing open material you find and use, or to attribute yourself when you create something and want to share. The builder includes both CC licenses and public domain designations.

You may also cite OER in MLA or APA format. To do so, you would follow the traditional citation structure and add the licensing information to the end. For example:

  • Claypool, R. (2012, October 5). Flamingo [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/dh7axD. CC BY license.