July 10, 2020

Seven Copyright Best Practices for Online Teaching

Guest Writer: Lisa Ferris, Ed.S., Instructional Designer (OED)

Seven Copyright Best Practices for Online Teaching

If a video, photo, or document is on the internet, is it OK for faculty to freely use it in their course materials?

Answer:  It depends!  Follow these seven best practices to help you legally use resources for your online teaching.

#1:  Know the four factors of Fair Use. 

The Fair Use doctrine (17 U.S. Code 107) permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders for special purposes, including teaching.  Check your desired use of the resource against each of these factors:

  • Purpose: Non-profit educational use is likely considered fair use.  Commercial use for entertainment or for-profit ventures is not.
  • Nature: Is the content factual or non-fiction?  If fact-based, it’s likely fair use for educators.  If it is a highly creative work, then it is likely not fair use.
  • Amount: How much of a copyrighted work are you using?  One photo out of 500? One page out of a book? Use the smallest amount needed.  Copying a chapter from a book and pasting it inside an online module is not fair use.
  • Effect: Does your use of a resource impact the owner’s ability to license or sell it and make money?  Using an image from a pay-for-use photo site is not fair use.

#2:  Look for resources with minimal or no restrictions

Avoid copyright problems up front by searching for resources on government sites or those designed for creators to openly share their works with others. These include MedEd Portal, Open Educational Resources, Creative Commons, and works in the public domain.

Create your own resources, if possible.  And confirm you own the copyright, if any.  If a journal has published your article, they might own the copyright.

#3:  Identify the owner and any copyright restrictions

Images have been copied many times and posted all over the web.  If possible, dig to find the original image or its copyright notice.  If a website contains images, read the site’s Terms of Use which might specifically permit or restrict use of resources on their pages.

#4:  Ask permission

If a resource is copyright-protected, you can always contact the owner to ask permission for use.   Sites frequently post contact information specifically for copyright questions.

#5:  Follow TEACH Act guidelines:

The TEACH Act (2002) was created to clarify what uses are permissible for distance education. It requires that teachers:

  • restrict use to enrolled students
  • only make the material available for viewing during the relevant portion of the course
  • limit downloading of materials in the same way distribution is restricted by Fair Use.

Post this notice in your course syllabus and on the front page of your online course:

This course contains copyrighted materials for personal, educational use of enrolled students and may not be further distributed.  

#6:  Link instead!  Instead of downloading a document and sharing it with students, link to its parent (and legal) site instead.

#7:  Attribute appropriately.  Always provide an attribution to resources used.  Many resource owners provide the attribution they prefer.  Keep in mind:   Attribution does not prevent copyright infringement.

Information has been summarized from the online module “Copyright Good Habits” developed by Dr. Jan Hart, former UAMS Library Director, and reviewed by Harold Evans, UA System Legal Counsel.  Revised by the Office of Educational Development (2015).

Visit OED’s Teaching Resources site for more resources on Copyright.

Additional Resources:

  • An online tool for instructors to check the use of a specific resource: