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Fair play: coloring books and copyright

By Liz Hamilton, Copyright Librarian, and Rachel Cole, Transportation Public Services Librarian

Coloring Book CoverColoring books are said to have benefits that include reductions in stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts. The coloring book produced by Northwestern University Libraries’ Distinctive Collections also provides an introduction to the richness and depth of materials in our collections: the Art Library, the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, the Music Library, the Transportation Library, the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, and University Archives.Rhino

We have assembled a variety of images from across our diverse collections for this year’s coloring book. With pages from texts as varied as the Nuremburg Chronicle, Transportation Exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Northwestern University Syllabus yearbook, and Thomas Shaw’s 18th century work Travels, or Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant, this is a coloring book that can really be produced only at Northwestern.  –RC

Fair Use

Most of the drawings in this edition of the coloring book are in the public domain, but a handful are still likely under copyright, as they were published after 1923. Why are they in the book? We were able to include them thanks to fair use.

Fair use is a provision in United States copyright law that allows for the use of work that is still protected by copyright for purposes such as criticism and teaching under certain circumstances. These circumstances are determined by evaluating four factors, and looking at those factors together to make a decision about whether a given use is fair. We found that, considering all four factors, the inclusion of these images in the coloring book is fair use. The rest of this post will be a brief summary of our fair use analysis for each factor for the images chosen to highlight the resources found in the Northwestern University Libraries in the coloring book.

The Purpose and Character of the Use

The coloring book is designed to be used as a teaching and promotional tool that showcases the collection, promoting its resources in a new way and to a new audience. We found that principle two of the ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use supported this reading.

It is fair use for a library to use appropriate selections from collection materials to increase public awareness and engagement with these collections and to promote new scholarship drawing on them.

Though the coloring book may also be used for entertainment, that is not its sole or main purpose. On the whole we found the first factor to favor fair use.

The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

The original works included in the coloring book are published, which favors fair use. On the other hand, most of these are creative works, which opposes it. Balancing these two points, we found the second factor to be neutral in terms of fair use.

The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used: 

The images in the coloring book were chosen carefully to represent the collection, and are limited to one image from selected publications. To successfully represent the larger volumes, it was necessary to include the whole of each drawing. Though we are using whole illustrations, it is necessary in this case to represent the larger work each one is a part of. We found the third factor favored fair use.  

The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market:

The Libraries own lawfully acquired copies of the sources of the drawings in the coloring book. Use of the images in the coloring book has no significant effect on the market or potential market for the original images, and will not replace the sale of the original illustrations. In addition, no similar product is being marketed by the copyright holder to our knowledge. Given all of this, we found the fourth factor to favor fair use.

For more information on copyright services at the Northwestern University Libraries or to schedule a consultation, see our Scholarly Research Services page. –-LH


Compounding Engines


We invite you to share your completed coloring pages to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections, to join in with others participating at institutions worldwide, and #NUColorOurCollections, to collect all of Northwestern’s pages in one place.