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Copyright, Open Access, Fair Use & Public Domain

Faculty FAQs on Copyright & Fair Use

Can I use a copyrighted work in the classroom?

The rules governing use of materials for face-to-face teaching provide more flexibility concerning copying, displaying, and distributing copyrighted materials in the classroom, You may display or perform a work in your class without obtaining permission or doing a fair use evaluation when your use meets all three of these criteria:

The use is:

  • for instructional purposes;
  • in face-to-face teaching (in the classroom, not over the Internet);
  • at a nonprofit educational institution.

Typical uses allowed include:

  • showing all or part of a movie or television show;
  • including pictures, images, graphs, and charts in your lecture slides;
  • playing music.


Can I post a work to Canvas?

Because there are no exact rules governing fair use, you have to use your best judgment when deciding whether to post materials to Canvas without permission. There is no specific number of chapters, paragraphs, or lines that is certainly fair (or unfair), nor are there specific percentages. Copying a single chapter from a book may be fine, while copying the entire book usually is not. Consider the four factors mentioned above, and try to determine honestly whether your use seems reasonable.

  • You can check your judgment by answering this question: "If someone used this much of my work would I think it was fair, or would I want to be asked for permission?"

As an alternative, we strongly recommend that you make the material available to your students through the library reserves service. If you use this service, your reserve list (listing both print and electronic reserve materials) will be tied to your course in Canvas automatically, and library staff will handle the creation of the digital files (when necessary) and the copyright permissions. If the material is already freely available elsewhere on the web, or through the library's electronic resources, you can link to these resources within your Canvas courses. When you link to a resource, you are not making a copy of the resource.


Can use clips from DVDs with anti-circumvention protection?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that circumvention protection cannot be broken. However, the DMCA also requires that every three years the Librarian of Congress determines whether there are any classes of works that will be subject to exemptions from the DMCA's prohibition against circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work. In 2010, the Librarian of Congress expanded the exemption associated with motion pictures on DVDs. This exemption now states:

Motion pictures on DVDs that are lawfully made and acquired and that are protected by the Content Scrambling System when circumvention is accomplished solely in order to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment, and where the person engaging in circumvention believes and has reasonable grounds for believing that circumvention is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the use in the following instances:

  • Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;
  • Documentary filmmaking;
  • Noncommercial videos


Can I include a copyrighted work in my writing?

One goal of fair use is to allow the inclusion of quotations and excerpts in scholarly works without seeking permission. While every use is different and must be considered individually there are widely accepted standards about the permissible amounts of copyrighted work in a Fair Use context. 


Writing for publication

If you are writing a book or article for publication, your publisher may want you to get permission for the use of all copyrighted material (e.g. images, figure, charts), even uses that you may think are fair. While every publisher has its own policy on what it considers to be legally safe, you should be aware that you may be responsible for clearing permissions for publication and that there may be a cost associated with acquiring those rights.


Writing for personal or classroom use

If you are writing a paper for a class and you have no intention of publishing it, you have much broader leeway as far as what you can use. Remember, however, that fair use is a concept in copyright law, and that it does not alter your academic obligation to provide proper citation for works that you use. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different things.


Can I use a work in my conference presentation?

The same fair use provisions that protect the use of quotations and excerpts in scholarly writing also protect those uses in scholarly presentations. You may be able to include copyrighted text, images, or videos in your presentation slides.

However, if the conference organizers plan to use your presentation after it is over; for example, if video of your presentation is posted on the conference website, or if the slides are made freely available for download your ability to include copyrighted work may be more limited. You can generally show more than you can share, and you should clarify these issues in advance so that you have time to clear rights for the copyrighted material in your presentation, create a second version for distribution that does not include the copyrighted material, or choose alternative material that you are free to use.


Can I use a work in an online (distance learning) class?

The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act) says that teachers and students at accredited educational institutions can use works for distance learning without permission under certain circumstances.

If you:

  • are an educator at an accredited educational institution,
  • will supervise your students' use of copyrighted materials,
  • are using the material as an integral part of a class session,
  • are using the material as an integral part of your curriculum, and
  • are using the material that is directly related to and of material assistance to your teaching content,

and you plan to use copyrighted works in the following ways:

  • performances of nondramatic literary works (i.e., a recording of a novel being read aloud);
  • performances of nondramatic musical works (i.e., a recording of a symphony);
  • performances of reasonable amounts of any work (i.e., an excerpt from a movie); or
  • display of any work in an amount comparable to what would be used in a live classroom.

then your use aligns with the Teach Act. For more help, see Peggy Hoon's TEACH Toolkit as well as these TEACH Act checklists: Basic Checklist, Expanded Checklist, and Discussion Checklist.


What if I got the work from a website?

Works from a website should be presumed to be protected by copyright. The internet is not the equivalent of public domain. If a work is published online with a statement that it is in the public domain, you will have to judge whether or not these claims are trustworthy, keeping in mind that such claims will not protect you should a copyright holder object to your use.

You may encounter works online for which the author or creator specifically grants rights to use them, such as those released under a Creative Commons license. A Creative Commons license grants specific uses of web-based materials. It provides a mechanism for others to make certain uses of a work from the web without asking for permission, provided you follow the terms set by the creator.


What if I created the work?

Unless you created the work as part of your job as an employee or under contract as a work for hire, you are the author and the initial copyright holder. However, if you have transferred your copyright to someone else, such as a journal publisher, you are no longer the copyright holder and may not have any privileges to use the work. If you are not sure, you should consult your publishing agreement to see if you have retained any rights.

If you have not retained rights to use your work, then you must treat it like any other copyrighted work decide whether the use you want to make is a fair use, and if it isn't, then ask for permission.


What if a student created the work?

Students hold the copyright to the academic works they create, such as their papers, projects, theses, and dissertations. There are also privacy concerns related to the use of student work. If you wish to use student work, ask for permission.


What if the work was published outside the US?

There are differences in copyright law across countries. The Berne Convention, signed by 163 countries, requires that countries recognize the works of foreign authors the same way they do those of their own nationals. For example, all works performed or published in the US, are subject to the terms of US copyright law, no matter where they were created originally. Most countries have standardized their copyright terms, so foreign copyrights tend to last as long as U.S. copyrights: the life of the author plus 70 years. When determining whether or not you can make a particular use of a foreign work, you will need to consider the specific circumstances of your case, such as the country where the work originated, whether or not the work is in print, and how you plan to use the work.


What is a Creative Commons license?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that created a set of simple, easy-to-understand copyright licenses. These licenses allow creators to mark a work with permission to make a variety of uses, with the aim of expanding the range of things available for others to quote, adapt, and build upon. Creative Commons licenses do two things: They allow creators to share their work easily, and they allow everyone to find work that is free to use without permission. As long as you obey the terms of the license attached to the work, you can use Creative Commons licensed material without fear of accidentally infringing someone's copyright.

For more information, visit the Creative Commons Basics page.


What if my intended use is not a fair use?

If you have determined that the use you want to make is not a fair use, you must ask for permission from the copyright holder. See the section on requesting permission to use copyrighted material for more information and sample request letters.