What Can I Use In My Online Course?

Using Copyrighted Materials In Your Online Course

The ability to locate, copy, and upload digital materials to an online course makes it much easier to inadvertently infringe the copyright of the content provider.   What should you keep in mind while selecting course content and what can you use?

Some ground 'rules'

•  Assume all content, regardless of format, publication status, or absence of a copyright notice is copyrighted.

•  Proper attribution is necessary.  It does not mean you can use any amount of any work as long as attribution is given.

•  A nonprofit educational use is not, in and of itself, a fair one.

•  Remember that students hold the copyright to works they create for the course.  You may need their permission before you use their work.

•  Password protecting your course enhances any claim of fair use.  It is not, however, permission to upload anything/everything you wish to include.

What Can You Use?

• Use your own original works - as long as you are still the copyright holder or have retained a right to use the work for teaching purposes.

• Use works in the public domain.  A quick, but not complete, rule of thumb: if the work was published in the U.S. before 1923, it is in the public domain. However, beginning January 1, 2019, this benchmark -1923- will update to 1924.  And each year thereafter, the benchmark year will progress, that is, on January 1, 2020, the benchmark year will be 1925 and so forth.

•  Use federal government works [works created by a federal government employee within the scope of their employment]

•  Use works pursuant to the Performance and Display Provisions of Section 110(2):

     - Performance of reasonable and limited portions of movies and music as long as the work was not specifically created for online mediated educational use.

     - Display of text, images, photos, graphs, etc., in an amount comparable to what you would have ordinarily shown in a face-to-face classroom setting.

     - Requires access control at the class level and requires reasonable technological efforts to prevent the students from saving, downloading, printing, or otherwise having the work in accessible form after they log out of the class.

     - If you are unable to fit within Section 110(2), fair use (Section 107) is available.

•  Use works pursuant to Fair Use, Section 107.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.  May I upload pdf's of articles or book chapters to my online course?

2.  May I stream entire movies in my online course?

3.  May I embed or link to entire YouTube videos in my online course?


Q: May I upload pdfs of articles of book chapters to my online course?

A: Where did you obtain the pdf?

If you downloaded the work from the Libraries' electronic resource collection, the terms of the license for that resource will control what can be done with the content.  Most of the licenses prohibit reposting materials but you are usually able to link to the work directly from your course website.

If instead, you scanned the article from a unlicensed resource, such as a print book or print journal, you will need to do a fair use analysis.

Q: May I stream entire movies in my online course?

A: Generally speaking, no, not without a streaming license. 

Streaming an entire movie does not constitute transmitting the performance of “reasonable and limited portions.” [see Section 110(2) discussion above).  Furthermore, if the audiovisual work is an educational work created specifically for online mediated instructional activities or is a pirated copy, it is automatically ineligible for the Section 110(2) exemption.  Similarly, this scenario is unlikely to pass the fair use analysis because most of the four factors are not in favor of a fair use finding.  Although it is a nonprofit educational use, it is not particularly transformative, the nature of the work is highly creative, the amount used is the entire work, and there may or may not be an effect on the market. 

Q: May I embed or link to YouTube videos into my online class?

A: There appears to be minimal risk in this activity, as follows, -

There are several broad categories of YouTube videos used for courses. One type of YouTube video is one that may incorporate portions of commercially made movies and music.  YouTube has a very sophisticated system in place that automatically and immediately compares every second of every uploaded video with content in its rights management database and applies whatever rule the rights holder has attached to the content.  Given the ubiquitous nature of YouTube, it is reasonable to assume that commercial rights holders will have deposited copies of their works in YouTube’s rights management database with accompanying instructions on what to do should any of their material show up in a video.  Therefore, it follows that if a video is up for viewing on YouTube, the rights holder has allowed it.  Watch this explanatory TED video: Margaret Gould Stewart: How YouTube Thinks About Copyright.

The other type of YouTube video often used is the homemade video.  These are the ones you see of students sleeping in class, pets and children doing unusual things, and so forth.  It is likely that the photographer, who is automatically the copyright holder, is the same individual who uploaded the film to the YouTube site in the first place - clearly aware that millions of people will view and possibly use or link to it.  Based on that, there is likely an implied license to use it.