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Copyright: How can I be copyright compliant?

Copyright framework link

A copyright framework is below. If you're looking for the framework referenced in the copyright refresher workshop, click here

How can I be copyright compliant?

Copyright has no one size fits all approach



What you need to succeed:

    • A basic understanding of copyright,
    • Knowing the right questions to ask yourself,
    • and Knowing where to turn when you need answers...


Below are some of the questions you should be asking yourself when considering whether or not to use a work and be copyright compliant.

Additionally, there are resources provided in each section that you can turn to for help in answering each one of these.

Remember that any of these criteria are contingent upon whether or not you acquired a work lawfullyYou are liable for copyright infringement! You cannot use in your instruction any materials that you acquired unlawfully, or that you know or suspect a colleague acquired unlawfully!


#1. Do you own the copyright?

If you are the owner of a copyrighted work, you have exclusive rights to share, modify, distribute, or perform/ display (U.S. Code Title 17, Section 106).  No matter what you do with the work you will be always be compliant with copyright law! 

However, be careful because you do not own the copyright if you produced the work as a work for hire, or if you transferred ownership of the copyright to a third party.

Not sure if you're the owner or want to know more about copyright ownership? See the resources below:

...resources on ownership

  • Not sure about works made for hire? Read the United States Copyright Office's Circular "Works made for hire." 

  • Columbia University Libraries' Copyright Advisory Office has a great webpage: "Copyright Ownership
  • Check out University of Texas at Austin's page "Who owns what?" in their online Copyright Crash Course.

#2. Is it in the public domain?

Public domain: Works that you don't own the copyright to, but you can use ANY WAY YOU WANT!
You can ensure copyright compliance by using a work that is in the public domain. Examples of such works include:

1. Some (not all!) federal, state, and local government documents
2. Phone books
3. Works with expired copyright
4. Freeware
5. Open Source Documents
6. Works published before 1923
7. Things that cannot have a copyright (ex. an idea, a formula, a fact)
8. Linking (not deep linking)
9. Resources intentionally placed in the public domain (ex. open source network resources, such as are available via OER Commons)

Never assume public domain!!
Why not???

  • A derivative can be copyrighted,
  • A copyright can be renewed,
  • A government document may have been created by a contracted employee,
  • An irreputable source may have posted the work.


 Need more sources on the public domain? Check out the resources below:

...resources on public domain

#3. Is there a licensing agreement that allows you to use that work?

Licenses are legally binding contracts that tell you how a copyrighted work can be used. 

Make sure you are aware of any licenses. Always investigate!

For example, many works have automatically purchased licenses: software, DVDs, music, etc. 

Some creators now choose to make their own licenses.  Below are some examples of this new type of licensing that you may encounter:

Most of the Health Sciences Library's licenses for electronic resources (journals, databases, eBooks) allow for use in the classroom.

If the license does not allow you to use the material, and fair use does not apply (see #4), then you will need to obtain permission, or pay royalties (see #6). 

Want to better understand how licensing works? Check out some of the resources below:

...resources for licensing

  • The Copyright Clearance Center has a section called "Licensing Copyright Content" on their webpage About Copyright

#4. Does your use fall under fair use or another statutory exemption?

What are statutory exemptions?

They are exemptions “[…] written into copyright law to provide some ways to use others’ works without infringing on the owner’s copyright and without needing permissions to use the work.” (p. 45)
(Butler, R. P. (2014). Copyright for academic librarians and professionals. Chicago: American Library Association.)

Two important exemptions for faculty to consider include: 
1. Fair Use
2. The Classroom Exemption

Fair Use: Remember that, just because the use is for education, that does not necessarily make it fair use.

The use must be for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research (U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107).

Then there are four factors you need to consider:

  • Purpose and Character of Use: What are you copying the work for?
    • For education, nonprofit, or personal purposes = favors fair use
    • Parodies and transformative uses fall here.

  • Nature of Work: Fact or fiction? Published or unpublished?
    • Nonfiction published pieces not sold in the educational market = favors fair use

  • Amount to be borrowed: Smallest amount to be borrowed is best. Quantity and quality matter.

  • Marketability of work: Will copying this item cause the copyright holder to earn less money?

  • Note: Books and periodicals also fall under fair use if they meet the test of: Brevity, Spontaneity, and Cumulative effect.

Works permitted in face to face instruction under fair use are also allowable in SECURED online courses.

Classrom Exemption:

§ 110 of U.S. Copyright Law allows for the exemption of certain performances and displays beyond what is allowed by fair use if it meets these 5 requirements:
  • It is in a nonprofit educational institution
  • It occurs in a classroom or similar place of instruction (NOT online)
  • It is a performance or display that is a regular part of systematic instruction
  • It is a performance that is directly related to teaching content
  • it is for a person who is disabled or in special circumstances that prevent them from attending class (§ 110 (2) Handicap Exemption)

Statutory exemptions, especially fair use, can be the most difficult part of determining copyright regulations.  The law is complicated, as well as vague, and necessitates that users make a variety of judgement calls.  It is very helpful to read up on the topic, so you may find the resources below useful:

...resources for fair use and statutory exemptions

  • Gudielines are helpful because they attmept to interpret fair use. Columbia University has a great page compiling some major fair use guidleines: "Guidelines"

Try out some of these handy tools:

Fair use evaluator

Exceptions for instructors tool

#5. Does your use fall under the TEACH Act


The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act) creates a framework for the use of "certain performances and displays for education uses" in ONLINE (not face-to-face) education (Subtitle C of Title III of H.R. 2215.)

If your institution meets all criteria to be TEACH Act compliant, this allows what can be shared in the online environment to align more closely with what can be shared in face-to-face instruction. 

What you can share:

  • Performance of nondramatic literary or musical works (i.e. poetry/short story readings, and all musical works except opera, music videos, and musicals)
  • Resonable and limited portions of any other work
  • Or display of a work in an amount comparable to that which is typically displayed in the course of a live classroom setting (i.e. still images of all kind)

          (Source: Subtitle C of Title III of H.R. 2215.)

...resources on the TEACH Act

#6. Did you obtain permissions or pay royalties?

If you are not allowed to use a work either because of a licensing restriction or you need more that what would be allowed by fair use or another statutory exemption…you need permission for it, or you need to pay for liensing/royalties.
Unfortunately, where you go to get permission or pay depends on the type of work you want to use…  Below are some examples::
  • Cartoons, columns, and editorial features: Universal Uclick
  • DVDs, CDs, and Video: Motion Picture Licensing Corporation
  • Images: Media Image Resource Alliance

You can also contact general clearinghouses for such as the Copyright Clearance Center or the U.S. Copyright Office to find infromation on a licensing agreement. However, there is typically a fee for these services. 

Orphan Works: "works where finding the owner(s) is problematic or next to impossible." (Butler, R. P. (2014). Copyright for academic librarians and professionals (p.51). Chicago: American Library Association.)

You have a choice to make here about whether or not you want to use a work you cannot find the owner too. Sometimes it may be safest to choose another work, or only use what might be considered fair use. 

...resources for obtaining permissions or paying royalties

  • Columbia University's Copyright Advisory Committee has also put together a page: "Permissions"
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