Skip to main content

Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons Licensing for Educators

The basics of copyright law for educators


Related imageThis research guide provides links to resources about copyright and "fair use" of copyrighted materials. It is designed to help faculty make decisions on what materials can be included in-classroom, online, and hybrid courses. Copyright law has several purposes. It's designed to help authors control the use of their work in order to get credit for, and profit from, that work. This means that the author has the first right to copy their material and to distribute it. It's also designed to move intellectual property into the public domain eventually, so that society at large can profit from these materials. 

Copyright allows authors to license their content however they want. In the online world, many authors are moving toward a collaborative and open model of publishing their work. Because they own their copyright, they can license their materials under any combination of CreativeCommons Licenses, which allow them to participate in the collaborative online culture that may add value and increase usage of their works. These licenses are free to use and allow the author to control how the work can be shared, reused (or not), and incorporated in the digital world. These CreativeCommons licenses form the legal basis for "open educational resources", "open textbooks", and "open access journals".

Permission FAQs

Why do I need permission to use a work?

When a work is protected by copyright, the holder of the copyright is given a set of exclusive rights over the work, including the right to copy, distribute, perform, and adapt the work. These rights are subject to a number of exceptions, including Fair Use and exemptions for classroom teaching. Unless your use of a work meets the requirements of one of these exceptions, copyright law requires you to get permission from the copyright holder before using their work.

If I want to use a work for educational purposes, isn't that Fair Use?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted works without requiring permission from the copyright holder for a number of educational purposes -- commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or scholarship. However, it is important to remember that an educational purpose alone does not mean that your use will be protected as Fair Use. Copyright law sets forth a number of fact-specific criteria that must be evaluated to determine whether a use is "Fair." Please refer to the Fair Use section of this guide for more information.

Do I need permission to show a movie in class?

No, you do not need permission from the copyright holder to show a copyrighted movie in a face-to-face (i.e., not online) class. This is because copyright law provides for a specific exemption that allows performances or displays of works during face-to-face teaching activities at nonprofit educational institutions, whether in the classroom or in a "similar place devoted to instruction." This exemption applies not just to movies, but to any copyrighted work. This exemption does not extend to situations where you have reason to believe that the copy of the work was "not lawfully made," e.g. an illegally copied DVD.  

Do I need permission to link to materials on the web?

Generally, merely providing links to materials on the web does not require the permission of the copyright holder. It is a good rule of thumb to use linking to provide access to copyrighted materials whenever possible, rather than posting PDFs or otherwise reproducing web materials.

Do I need to get permission in writing?

You should make a habit of getting permission in writing whenever possible. Although under the law copyright permission does not have to be written, having a record of the grant of permission offers you greater protection should questions or disputes arise in the future. Depending on how you plan to use the work, you may need documentary evidence to show others that you have the permission of the copyright holder. For example, many publishers will require written proof of permission in order to include copyrighted works in your own publication. 

What about to make copies of course readings for my students?

Creating copies of course readings in situations other than Coursepacks (e.g., supplemental or newly-published articles that you wish to make available during the course of the semester) may qualify as Fair Use. But in brief, fair use for educational purposes is more likely to be considered "fair" for small reproduced quantities, e.g., the portion copied is not significant in relation to the entire work and is intended for educational purposes. Ten percent (10%) or less is often cited as the appropriate portion that fits the aforementioned parameter. If you post the reproduced work on a learning management system (such as Canvas or Blackboard) for reserved reading, make sure that a) you restrict access to students enrolled; b) block access after the course has ended; and c) remind your students that the material posted should not be copied or redistributed to others (include a copyright notice that explains that these documents are made available through fair use or the TEACH Act and further copying and redistributing the materials is a violation of copyright law).  See the Fair Use and TEACH Act sections of this guide.


Copyright Resources