Content reuse is central to most medical communications projects, but navigating the copyright guidelines applicable to this reuse remains a challenge for some agencies and clients. In this post, we’ll provide you with four copyright tips that will help you better understand how published material can be leveraged in your projects in a copyright compliant way.

  1. I want to use copyrighted material for internal use only. What are the dos and don’ts regarding permission? 

Medical communications professionals are often responsible for developing internal education or employee training to improve their business. If you find yourself using copyrighted materials for internal education or employee training, you likely need to secure permissions for that reuse. In some cases, your organization may have a license or a subscription agreement that applies to the internal reuse of content. Check the terms and conditions of these agreements to see if your reuse is covered.

2. Do I need permissions to reuse content in a conference presentation? 

If the content in the presentation was previously published in a journal or other third-party publication, it may well require permissions for reuse, even if it is the result of your own or your client’s research. Keep in mind that all copyright rights in the content are often transferred to the publishing journal. In such cases, you must seek permission to reuse that content from the journal that published the content.

3. Do I need permissions if I adapt a figure? 

There are many variations on what is meant by adaptation. It could be as simple as updating the colors or fonts to completely redrawing the figure. Whenever you adapt a figure, no matter how minor the adaptation, it’s best to seek permissions and share a copy of the adapted figure with the rightsholder to ensure the adaptation does not alter the intent of the original material.  

4. How do you know if something is fair use in the United States? 

There is no set formula for determining whether a use of someone else’s material is a fair use, but the law (Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act) sets out the following four factors for determining whether a use is a fair use:

  • The purpose and character of the new use — the more commercial it is, the more unlikely it is to be a fair use. On the other hand, the more “transformative” the use is (although the meaning of that word, too, can vary), the more likely it IS a fair use.  
  • The nature of the copyright protected work — the more factual and less creative it is, the more likely it is that the law would consider the use of that work to be a fair use, but the more creative the work used is (like a work of fine art), the less likely a fair use argument is available. 
  • The amount and substantiality of the use of the protected work — the more you use, or the more important the part of the work used, the less likely you are to have made a fair use.  
  • The impact of the new use on the market for the copyright-protected work — the more likely your use is to affect the ability of the owner of the copyright-protected work to sell or otherwise benefit from her work, the less likely your use is a fair use.  

The law says that you (or a court) has to weigh each of those four factors separately and then weigh them together to make the final determination as to whether a use of someone else’s work is a fair use, and, as you can see, it is a very fact specific determination. That is, slight changes in the facts can result in a different fair use determination.

There are some things that are usually fair use, including using relatively short quotations from works and using limited, relevant portions of works for commentary or criticism.

However, and this is especially important for medical communications professionals to know, fair use does not generally cover reuse of content by private companies for business purposes, especially if the result is something that competes with the original works in the market. Always check with your editorial department and/or your legal counsel if you think that what you’re doing with content will constitute a ‘fair use.’

In the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and many other counties in the British Commonwealth, ‘fair dealing’ is a concept similar to fair use in the United States (though it is usually considered somewhat narrower — that is, the requirements for fair dealing are usually harder to meet than the requirements for fair use). Check with your editorial department and/or your legal counsel in the applicable country for help in determining whether your proposed use would qualify as a fair dealing.

As medical communications professionals, you will likely encounter other questions about how published material can be leveraged in your projects in a copyright compliant way. As with any questions with legal implications, the best approach is to consult with your organization’s legal counsel or internal copyright expert. We also recommend ensuring you have processes and systems in place to encourage and simplify copyright compliance. Marketplace from CCC makes it easy to get pay-per-use permissions, order reprints, and purchase content for your medical communications projects from millions of works and thousands of publishers around the world — all in one place. 


Author: Stephanie Davis

Stephanie Davis is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at CCC with more than 15 years of experience launching products that drive revenue growth for technology companies. She is passionate about creating differentiated positioning and developing and executing go-to-market strategies. Her primary focus at CCC include Ringggold Solutions and Marketplace.
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