Copyright and Fair Use

Almost everything falls under copyright law.  Whether there is a copyright notice on it or not, you should presume it is copyrighted until you have evidence otherwise.  So how do you tell if you can use a document, video, image or audio clip in your class legally? Rich media such as scanned images used in classroom presentations, audio or video clips used in the classroom or as homework resources, graphs and charts, and scanned texts can be found from a wide variety of sources. Often these materials are distributed via Canvas, Kaltura, online reserves, or other online tools. When these materials are created by or owned by others, instructors must consider whether their proposed use of these materials is a lawful one.

If you are embedding media (for example, embedding a YouTube or Kaltura video into your course page like the one on Creative Commons below) or if you are linking to an outside source (like the link below to the Fair Use Checklist), that use is not subject to copyright. You are merely pointing students to the original source of the work, not duplicating or redistributing the work in any way.  If you are not embedding from or linking to an outside source, there are three main allowances for use without requesting permission from (and potentially paying fees to) the copyright holder: public domain, Creative Commons, and fair use.

Copyright does not apply to works in the public domain. This includes general facts, words, ideas, names, short phrases (that are not trademarked slogans), method, content written or produced by the US government, and works old enough that copyright has expired.  If you are interested in more information on public domain works, see What is Public Domain?

If the copyright holder has chosen Creative Commons (CC) licensing you may use the work based on the CC terms. 

Creative Commons  and other Open Access publishing options allow copyright holders the ability to allow reuse of their works but still retain some rights under US law. The need to provide attribution to the creator of the work is a common right required by Creative Commons licenses. Others include not allowing the work to be used for commercial purposes or requiring any adaptation of the work to also be shared with the same Creative Commons license type. A CC0 Creative Commons license places a given work in the public domain.

If your use doesn't fall under either of the former situations and you don't have explicit permission from the creator or publisher, you can analyze your intended use of materials with the Fair Use Checklist. The checklist was developed by Dr. Kenneth Crews, J.D., director of Columbia University's Libraries/Information Services Copyright Advisory Office (formerly director of the IUPUI Copyright Management Center). This resource can help instructors understand the fair use exceptions to US copyright law and whether their use is allowable.

Fair use of materials is evaluated on four factors of the proposed use:

  • purpose
  • nature
  • amount
  • the market effect

Each factor must be analyzed and evaluated for each item used. The checklist takes a step-by-step approach to evaluating the fair use of a copyrighted work. Analysis of an intended use will probably be mixed, both favoring and opposing the fair use. Instructors should be reasonable and conservative in evaluating the factors of fair use.

After an instructor fills out the checklist, they can consider whether the balance tips toward or away from fair use. Instructors should keep the filled-out checklist as a record of the good-faith decision-making process of a proposed instructional use.


One thing to keep in mind is that images are not a special case. Everything on the internet should be presumed to be fully protected by copyright law - including images - unless it specifically states otherwise.  There are many images that are freely available to use with or without attribution through public domain or Creative Commons licenses but they’re not necessarily easy to find. Sites like PexelsPixabay, and  MorgueFile are good sources of images that do not need attribution. The Wikimedia Commons has a mix of images that do and do not require attribution. Compfight is a Flickr search tool that pulls Creative Commons licensed images that you can use with attribution.  If you use Google Image Search, make sure to filter by usage rights and select "non-commercial reuse."


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