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Copyright, Open Access, Fair Use & Public Domain

Copyright Licensing Defined


License agreements

License agreements are made between a copyright holder and user to determine how the copyrighted content can be accessed and used. Terms of Use typically describe how copyrighted content can be used and whether a user needs to gain permission, or pay a fee in order to access/use the content. 


What is a Paywall?

A paywall is a method of restricting access to copyrighted materials online via a paid subscription. By paying subscription fees to academic databases, the library enables access to copyrighted materials to currently enrolled students, as well as staff and faculty at Holy Names University.  As such, there is no cost associated with accessing individual ebooks, articles or streaming media for currently enrolled students, faculty and staff, not because that content is "free," but because access to that content has already been paid--through a licensing agreement--for by the Cushing Library. 

Licensing Agreements for Electronic Course Materials (articles, ebooks, streaming media)

Best practices and guidelines for using electronic course materials:

It is important to remember that, from a copyright law perspective, there is no distinction between print materials used in a course, and electronic materials. The same Fair Use guidelines that apply to the purpose of your use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and the effect of the use upon the potential market of the work are all taken into account regardless of the format. 


1) Online doesn’t mean “free”

Widespread use of the Internet to find and distribute information sources has fostered misconceptions concerning the lawful use of copyrighted information in electronic form. Simply because content is accessible online does not mean it is free from copyright protection. Make sure you have permission before posting content. For example, if you find a copy of a book online in a downloadable pdf file, or a movie uploaded to Youtube, it does not mean that the copyright holder has authorized the use. Just because you are not the person who posted an unauthorized copy online—you will still be in violation of copyright if you upload this unauthorized copy to your course site. 

2) If you need to create an electronic copy, use an authorized print original (chapters, or articles)

If you need an electronic copy of a print article, or chapter from a book to upload into your online course-site do not simply search for a pdf on the internet--as you will most likely find an unauthorized copy. Instead, it is best to work from a legally purchased print copy that can be scanned in the library.

3) Scanned copies cannot serve as a substitute for the purchase of book/textbooks

Remember that one of the factors of Fair Use considers the impact of providing a free copy of a text on the publisher's market share. Thus, scanning large portions of a textbook with the intention that students can then avoid purchasing the textbook is a violation of Fair Use.    Limit course materials to small excerpts, as most experts advise using a single article or chapter, or less, of a copyrighted work (check out our Fair Use guide). 

4) Obtain permission before uploading into your course-site (Blackboard/Canvas)

Again, limit course materials to small excerpts, as most experts advise using a single article or chapter, or less, of a copyrighted work (check out our Fair Use guide). However, even brief excerpts must be viewed in the overall context of other readings offered for a course. If the total effect is to create a “digital coursepack” of unlicensed materials, the case for Fair Use is significantly weakened. It is always best to obtain copyright permission when providing access to materials not currently licensed by through the library database. And keep in mind, reposting of the same material for use in a subsequent semester requires a new copyright permission.

5) Check the licensing agreements before posting links to articles or ebooks in the library databases

Reuse rights included in subscriptions vary greatly by publisher. In some cases, the publisher may limit user access to an ebook, or article, to a specific number of "simultaneous views"--meaning that only a certain number of users may access materials at the same time. As such, it would be unwise to assign readings from an ebook that can only be accessed by four users in a class of twenty students. Be sure to check your license’s terms and conditions to determine if the publisher has granted unlimited access to the article or ebook. 

6) Restrict access using course enrollment (Blackboard/Canvas) or passwords (personal websites)  

Primary areas of concern involve faculty distributing copyrighted materials through publicly accessible online platforms (e.g. personal website, faculty webpage or university social media) that enable access to these materials beyond the students specifically enrolled in your course. By limiting distribution of copyrighted materials through your course-site in Canvas where only students officially enrolled in the course can gain access, or by requiring a password to gain access to materials--and only that password providing currently enrolled students--you prevent the unauthorized use of copyrighted material.

7) Include copyright notices

Materials posted in a course management system should contain both the copyright notice from, and a complete citation to, the original material, as well as a clear caution against further electronic distribution. Make sure you take down (or remove access to) copyrighted materials for a particular class when the term concludes.

Obtaining Copyright Permissions

If you are seeking to enter into a licensing agreement in order to legally distribute copyrighted information, tracking down the copyright owner can be a challenge in itself.  In most cases, it’s not the author but actually the publisher that owns the copyright.  When authors get ready to publish an article or book, more than likely they have transferred copyright over to the publisher. 

In order to secure permission from the copyright owner you need to

1) Write a letter that includes:

  • a complete description of the material that you want to use including the citation, page numbers, and how much you want to use
  • explain how you want to use the material and  how important or relevant it is to include this information as part of your research
  • include how many times or how often the material will be used, the form of distribution, and whether the material will be sold
  • include a signature line for the copyright holder to sign, signifying that permission has been granted

2) Secure permission in writing:

  • A “nonexclusive” permission may be granted by telephone or handshake, but an “exclusive” permission or a transfer of the copyright must be in writing and signed by the copyright owner. In all cases, a clearly written document with a signature is needed to confirm exactly what is permitted.
  • Some copyright owners furnish their own permission form that may be downloaded from a website. If the copyright owner does not provide a permission agreement form, consider one of the forms linked to at the end of this section from the Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University, and review their "best practices" when drafting your own permission letter.

3) Document all communication with copyright owner:

  • Keep a copy of any and all correspondence with the copyright owner. If you successfully obtain permission, keep a record of all forms, contracts and conditions that apply. In the unlikely event that your use of the work is ever challenged, you will need this documentation. That challenge could arise far in the future, so keep a permanent file of the records. 


What if you are unable to contact the copyright owner?

If the copyright holder can't be located or is unresponsive it is best to use a limited amount that qualifies for fair use. Keep a detailed record of your quest to identify and locate the copyright owner. Why keep these records? In the unlikely event that your use of the work is ever challenged, you will need to demonstrate your good efforts.


*NOTE: Permission is not always required to use a work, depending on the work you choose or on your intended use. You may need to secure permission if you determine that the work you have selected to use is protected by copyright (i.e., not in the public domain), your use is not a fair use, and there are no other statutory exceptions apply.

Remember that you don’t need to request permission if:

  • your use is within Fair Use and you have made that determination
  • the work is not protected by copyright
  • your use is within the terms of a license agreement, such as a Creative Commons license