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Important guidelines for “Fair Use” of copyrighted material

I am writing with an important message about each of your obligations under federal copyright law.

Recently, a textbook publisher alerted us that a participant in one of our programs was improperly sharing electronic copies of published material with their colleagues.  This person had obtained .pdf copies of textbooks and other study materials and placed those electronic files in a Box folder that was accessible by dozens of their colleagues.  The materials were downloaded hundreds of times without the authors’ permission.  Such conduct is not tolerated at Washington University.

Sharing copyrighted material with others to avoid purchasing additional copies is inappropriate and infringes on the rights of copyright owners.  It violates University policy, and may also be a violation of federal copyright law.  Further, any colleague who downloads a copy of materials shared without permission may also be acting in violation of law

The digital age has made content sharing simple and inexpensive, which is why we must be even more vigilant in our efforts to avoid infringing on others’ intellectual property rights.  In general, you should not copy entire written works and share them with your colleagues unless you have permission from the author or publisher.  As you may know, there are “fair use” exceptions that permit using copyrighted works in, for example, an educational setting.  But those exceptions must be determined by the facts surrounding that particular situation and would rarely involve the reproduction and distribution of an entire textbook.

Beyond the importance of intellectual property rights to universities, copying others’ works also potentially exposes the University to serious legal implications.  In the situation we recently faced, the books retail for more than $70 each.  We could be liable for reimbursing the publisher for lost profits.  And, if the University were found liable for copyright infringement, it could face civil damages of up to $30,000 per infringed work – a figure that can increase to $150,000 per violation that is deemed to be “willful.”  The law provides for possible criminal penalties as well.

Intellectual property plays an essential role in the educational and research functions of universities and protects the work of individuals.  Copyrights encourage the development of culture, science, and innovation, while providing financial incentives to copyright holders for their work.  WashU is committed to the expansion of knowledge to advance the common good, and the protection of intellectual property is essential to that mission.  It is in that spirit that we expect all members of the University community to respect copyright laws.

If you have questions or become aware of a possible infringement, feel free to contact me or Tim Huskey in the Office of General Counsel.  For additional information, please contact a librarian at the Becker Medical Library or visit these sources:

The University’s Intellectual Property Policy (link to

The University’s Policies regarding Copyrights (link to

The Fair Use Analysis Worksheet (pdf hosted on


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