Copyright for Online Courses

If you are like most faculty members, you strive to create interesting courses that engage your students. This is a difficult task in the online environment, and usually requires both text and multimedia resources. But how can you add these resources to an online course without infringing upon copyright? This unit explains the basics of copyright law and the aspects to consider before adding resources to a course.

Learning objectives include:

  • Discovering sources for copyright-safe multimedia such as the library and creative commons
  • Knowing how you can use copyrighted materials in your online course
  • Learning how to provide access to textbooks and required readings
  • Learning best practices to help prevent the redistribution of copyrighted materials

Copyright Tutorials

The tutorials below provide an overview of copyright fundamentals such as fair use and the public domain. Although the tutorials are branded to specific universities, much of the content is universally applicable.

What Materials Can I Use in My Course?

  • UI&U Library: The library’s collection of scholarly resources can be shared within the UI&U community using a non-hyperlinked, “available in the library” message (learn more).Levi, L. (2010). Open Educational Resources: The Educational Ecosystem Comes to Life [Photograph]. Retrieved from Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.  Librarians are happy to help locate articles, ebooks, videos, images, recordings, and other course resources.  Just let us know how we can help.
  • Creative Commons: The Creative Commons search allows you to locate copyright-safe multimedia from popular websites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Google Images. You can use creative commons licensed works in your course as long as you respect any usage restrictions, such as non-profit use or creator attribution (learn more). Here is a Creative Commons licensed photo that can be used in an online course. Note that it includes attribution, citation, and a creative commons license notice.
  • Public Domain: Any resource that is in the public domain, i.e., not copyrighted, can be added to an online course. Resources enter the public domain if the creator grants the work to the public domain, the work was created by the U.S. Government, or the copyright expires (e.g. U.S. publications prior to 1923). Below is a public domain image, which does not require a copyright statement or attribution (although it is good practice to include a citation).
  • Caption: Palmer, Alfred T. Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a "Vengeance" dive bomber, Tennessee. c1984. Photograph. Lib. of Cong., Washington D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.Links: You can link to a resource that is legally available online.
  • Copyrighted Materials (With Permission): You can use copyrighted materials in an online course if you have permission from the copyright holder (please see this guide to Asking For Permission, which includes sample permission letters).
  • Copyrighted Materials (Without Permission): If you post copyrighted materials to an online course, please be sure it is permitted by fair use (see Fair Use Information & Checklist). According to the UI&U Intellectual Property Policy (Observance of Copyrights section), “unless permission has been obtained for the use of copyrighted material from the copyright owner, such material may only be used if permitted by the “fair use doctrine”…if in doubt about whether a proposed use of copyrighted material falls within the “fair use doctrine” employees of Union Institute & University are expected to either obtain permission to use the material from the copyright owner, or otherwise obtain guidance from the Provost.”

Textbooks & Required Readings

If the material is not available through means above (this occurs most often for textbooks and required readings), the material cannot be legally posted in an online course and students will need to purchase a copy. Below are some strategies for providing access:

  • Books & Textbooks: New and used books are readily available online and in local bookstores. In addition, several online companies offer textbook rentals at discounted prices, and there is a growing collection of freely available textbooks (please see Open Culture and Open Access Textbooks).
  • Articles: Students can purchase single articles directly from the journal publisher. To purchase an article: search by the article title using Google Scholar. Then click the article title to go to the publisher’s website and purchase the article. If this does not work, use a regular Google search to locate the publisher’s website.
  • Coursepacks (Multiple Articles & Book Chapters): If you are assigning multiple articles or book chapters, it may be cheaper and easier for your students if you create a coursepack. Several commercial companies provide print and electronic coursepacks. If you provide these companies with a list of your assigned readings, these companies will obtain the necessary copyright clearances and assemble a coursepack your students can purchase.
  • Alternative Articles/Books: Librarians are happy to help locate other articles and e-books in the library collection or available for library/institution purchase.

Best Practices

When using copyrighted materials in an online course, it is a good idea to follow these best practices to help prevent redistribution. Remember that you still need to obtain permission from the copyright holder or meet the fair use guidelines when using copyrighted materials in order to satisfy UI&U policy.

  • Keep copyrighted materials within your online course and limit access to currently enrolled students.
  • Brightspace interface displaying the start date, due date, and end date.Limit access to the shortest time period possible. In Brightspace and CampusWeb this can be done using the start and end date display options.
  • Use legally obtained content that is directly related to what you are teaching
  • Educate your students about the importance of copyright and not redistributing copyrighted materials.
  • Include a copyright mark (©) and citation with copyrighted materials (use alt+control+c to insert a copyright mark)
  • Use small portions of a work (e.g. a book excerpt)
  • Do not disable DVD and CD DRM or other copyright protections
  • Use technology safeguards to prevent redistribution (i.e. streaming videos and watermarked or low-resolution images)
  • Do not include copyrighted work that would normally be purchased by a student such as textbooks and coursepacks

Ready to Test Your Knowledge?

Getting Help

Copyright questions?  Please contact a librarian


Licensed by Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Last updated 12/8/2020