Fair Use is a doctrine in United States copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, such as for commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching or scholarship. It provides for the legal, non-licensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work under a four-factor balancing test.
What does this mean for you, as a designer and student?
The answer is quite simple—protection! During your educational adventure, many of your assignments will revolve around utilizing found imagery online or through some other means (scanning, photographing, etc.), therefore, you should have an understanding that those items are from other people; as a designer, it is your job to cite your sources. There is nothing wrong with saying where you scored that great picture or who you shot ideas back-and-forth with to come up with that great new logo; in fact, you should be doing that regularly—you would expect people to do it with your works and ideas, right?!
The eyes of the law are a little different when it comes to Fair Use, since cases are judged per-presentation instead of having a clear-cut listing as to what goes and what passes.
As a student, you need to understand (and rather quickly) that the law isn’t ignored because you are in a classroom setting. There are strict standards when dealing with plagiarism with different institutions (refer to your institution’s rules and practices), and using someone else’s materials is just that—borrowing someone else’s ideas and time. Stealing is when you put your name on that work and claim it as yours.
As a professional, it means the difference between infringement lawsuits and a protecting created materials.
Good artists copy; great artists steal.
The law can be interpreted as protecting the artwork’s originator property from any sort of monies exchanging hands, and their hands aren’t in the mix. Being a student, there is clear evidence that within the classroom environment, you are designing to meet a grade / portfolio goal, hence monetary exchange isn’t happening. So if you use someone else’s work, are you violating Fair Use—under the law’s guidelines—no—but it speaks to your character when you modify something existing and claim it yours.
A little advice I give to students every year is to be aware that it is okay to modify items within the classroom environment; you are learning new skills and theory, so working with existing items is acceptable. Hell, even if you want to include it in your portfolio, go for it, but be sure you cite your original’s source. When you get the chance to replace it with a better piece down the road, make sure you do it.
You are doing what the rest of us are, too—creating works for the ability to make a living. Your rights do not trump anyone elses in the creative world, nor should theirs over your rights.
I have found and listed a few good reference articles about clear argumentative cases regarding Fair Use and copyright in terms of design. You can also source the original Fair Use doctrine from the US Government’s site, or see a simplified version completed by the Humanities Department Head at the Community College of Allegheny County’s Allegheny Campus (say that three-times-fast!), Max Blobner.