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Faculty Services & Resources

Understanding and Interpreting Fair Use Law

There are many pedagogical and technical issues that make the shift from in-person to online teaching challenging. However, most of the legal issues around copyright are the same in both contexts. If it was okay to do in the classroom, it is often okay to do online, especially when your online access is restricted to enrolled students via your Canvas course-site.

Below is a list of common areas for copyright questions around online teaching. If you have a question that is not covered here, please reach out to us at


Understanding and Interpreting Fair Use law

Fair Use law allows you to use copyrighted material without asking for permission or paying any sort of royalty or licensing fee — in certain contexts, including education. It allows for flexibility that is vital for educators adapting to the uncertainties during COVID-19 measures. Copyright experts from throughout the US and Canada as part of the University Intellectual Property Officers group have put together a statement explaining how fair use law works in public health crises such as the current pandemic. You can read that statement here: Public Statement of Library Copyright Specialists: Fair Use & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research. To do a fair use analysis for any copyrighted material that you wish to use in your class, use this Fair Use Checklist to make an assessment.

Recording video of yourself, live-casting lectures, sharing audio/video material, etc.

In-lecture use of images for live or recorded instruction

If it was legal to show slide images in class, it is likely legal to show them to students via live video conferencing or in recorded videos. As long as your new course video containing the slides is being shared through your Canvas course-site and limited to the same enrolled students, the legal issues are fairly similar.

Many instructors routinely post a copy of their slides as a file for students to access after in-person course meetings, which also likely doesn’t present any new issues after online course meetings.


In-lecture use of audio or video for live or recorded instruction

Here, the differences between online and in-person teaching can be a bit more complex. Playing audio or video from physical media during an in-person class session is 100% legal under a provision of copyright law called the “Classroom Use Exemption.”

However, that exemption doesn’t cover playing the same media online. If you can limit audio and video use for your course to relatively brief clips, you may be able to include those in lecture recordings or live-casts under the Fair Use copyright provision. When you post clips of copyrighted material, it is good practice to include a statement noting that the material you’ve posted is under copyright, made available for the purposes of this class, and not for sharing or reuse outside of this class. Whenever possible, disable the ability for students to download files of copyrighted materials in Canvas.

For media use longer than brief clips, you may need to have students independently access the content outside of your lecture videos. The can help you find the best available option. 


Where to upload and post your videos

There may be some practical differences in outcomes depending on where you upload and post new course videos. Canvas Studio enables you to create links to content in YouTube, or enables you to upload media from your computer. You can control who has access to these links, and content, and additionally you can disable the ability for students to download the media files you upload into Canvas Studio. Posting them to a Canvas site where video is restricted to students is a safe bet!

Course readings

Linking to publicly available online content like news websites, existing online videos, etc is rarely a copyright issue. 

Linking to subscription content through the Libraries is also a great option – a lot of our subscription content will have DOIs, URLs, or other “permalink” options, all of which should work even for off-campus users. For assistance linking to any particular libraries subscription content, check with see this guide.


Uploading PDFs to Canvas

Making copies of new materials for students (uploading files, or by scanning from physical documents) can present some copyright issues, but they’re not different from those involved in deciding whether to share something online with your students when you are meeting in-person.

It’s better not to make copies of entire works! Copying portions of works to share with students will often be Fair Use. When you post printed copyrighted material, it is good practice to include a statement noting that the material you’ve posted is under copyright, made available for the purposes of this class, and not for sharing or reuse outside of this class.

At Holy Names University, faculty are entrusted to make determinations about whether Fair Use permits them to scan and share library materials. If you’re uncertain about whether your course materials fall under Fair Use, contact

Where an instructor doesn’t feel comfortable relying on Fair Use, your department’s library liaison may be able to suggest alternative content that is already online through library subscriptions or publicly online content. The Libraries may also be able to help you seek formal copyright permissions to provide copies to students – but it is doubtful, given the scope of the current health crisis, that you would be able to get explicit permission in a timely manner.


Multimedia viewing/listening

Showing an entire movie or film or musical work online may be a bit more of an issue than playing it in class – but there may be options for your students to access it independently online. The Library subscribes to Kanopy streaming media databases which provide access to 70,000+ titles, and some of your films may already be available.  

Non-licensable Content

We may be able to purchase streaming access for additional media, but if the content is not licensable through the library's streaming media platform, Kanopy, please consider the following approaches:

  1. Is your media content available in an mp4 format available for purchase? A Fair Use parallel to in-classroom viewing may be to provide online viewing of only relevant portions of the film or streaming media for your students via Canvas Studio and Zoom. You can control who has access to viewing this content, and additionally, you can disable the ability for students to record the live-stream, or download the media files you upload into Canvas Studio. Posting them to a Canvas site where video is restricted to students is the safest bet!
  2. Are there other low-cost options for your students to view your desired title?  These may include temporary subscriptions to consumer-based streaming services such as Netflix / Hulu / Amazon Prime, etc.  Alternatively, students may rent many films via iTunes / Amazon / YouTube rentals, etc. These resources can be helpful in determining what content is available via which services: JustWatch and/or ReelGood
  3. Explore alternate content — in some cases, there may not be a streaming option, or an available mp4 file. 


More Questions? Need help?

Contact for further information or assistance.

Adapted from “Rapidly shifting your course from in-person to online” by Brandon Butler, University of Virginia Libraries; and Nancy Sims, University of Minnesota Libraries, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.