Using Copyrighted Materials in Your Coursecopyright_75

You are teaching an online course and want to use an article, a video clip, or an image in your upcoming course.  How do you know if your use falls within copyright compliance?

The following chart provides a big-picture overview of the steps to think about when using materials in your course. The Copyright Best Practices for Instructors Guide provides more details below.

Copyright graphic

Copyright Best Practices for Instructors

First, determine if any of the following applies. If so, you can use the material without permission.

Is the work considered part of the public domain?
Works in the public domain are essentially works whose copyright has expired or that were never copyrighted or eligible to be copyrighted.NASA2-150x150

  • Were the materials published before 1923? Materials published before 1923 are not copyright-protected and are therefore considered part of the public domain.
  • Were the materials created by the U.S. Government? U.S. federal government materials are not eligible to be copyrighted and are also considered part of the public domain. You may use these works without permission. For example, reports from the FDA Web site or images like the one on the right from the NASA multimedia page.
  • Has the copyright expired? For more information on determining copyright protection, consult this guide [/spoiler]

Can you link to the material instead of copying it? Where possible, it’s best practice to provide a hyperlink to materials you want to use, rather than copying materials directly. Links are not copyright-protected. Linking to materials found on another Web site is not copyright infringement—you are not copying or reproducing the material.[/spoiler]

Is it available through the NEU library? Check to see if the journal or newspaper article you want to use in your online course is already available through the Northeastern University Libraries’ licensed electronic database. You can then provide a direct link to the article in Blackboard for students to view. How do you do that?

For further instructions on linking to the NEU Libraries’ online database, go to

Is the material available through an open access resource or a Creative Commons attribution license? When looking for images to use in your course, review sites like Creative Commons or Wikimedia to search for material that copyright holders have agreed to share with others, with some rights reserved. Creative Commons offers licenses that allow for others’ use as long as the original source is attributed.

For more information on open access resources for books, journals, images, and more, visit:


What if none of the above options apply?

Evaluate your use of the material using the four factors of fair use:

Why is the work being used? (Works used for a non-profit educational institution for class commentary or criticism purposes would be more likely considered a fair use.  However, the work should also be relevant to your course objectives.)

What type of work is being used? (Is the work published or non-published? Non-published works are actually less likely to be considered fair use.)

How much of the work is being used and is it the “heart” of the work? (Generally, the smaller the amount of the work, the more likely it falls under fair use—i.e., using a chapter from the book versus the entire book itself. However, consider whether or not you are using the “heart of the work”— meaning using the most notable or central part of the book, thus possibly taking away from the need for students to purchase it.)

What’s the effect on the market value for the original? (Does this use compete with a potential sale of the book?)


When in doubt, get permission from the copyright holder.

It is best practice to first consult the copyright holder’s Terms of Use license and copyright policy to see if they allow for reproduction of their materials.

  • Send the copyright holder a request for permission to use the material.
  • Go to the source—most published materials have contact information for permissions. For example, the New York Times lists their permissions policy on their Web site.
  • Check with the Copyright Clearance Center, which lists the permission requirements for most publications (search by publication title, and it will list what permission is necessary to use as part of online course materials, with a pay-per-use option).[/spoiler]

What if copyright permission is denied or you are not able to get an answer in time for your course?

  • Buy copies needed
  • Require students to buy their own copies
  • Direct students to a link of the material (not a copy of the work)
  • Use an alternative source (revise your planned use or use different material)[/spoiler]

What is copyright? 

Copyright is a form of protection for original works of authorship. Copyright does not protect ideas, but rather the way the author expressed those ideas. Copyrighted works may be either published or unpublished. Copyright law states that the owner of any tangible creative work has the sole right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit, or transform that work.  Copyright law also seeks to balance the free transmission of ideas with the author or copyright holder’s rights to the work.

In other words, to be eligible for copyright, a work must be: fixed (the work must exist in a physical form), original, and creative.

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Fair use: weigh the factors

Fair use (Section 107 of the Copyright Act) recognizes that certain uses of copyrighted works—for purposes such as teaching, research, criticism, commentary, and reporting—may not require prior consent from the copyright holder, provided that the usage meets certain guidelines (outlined below).

However, the principle of fair use is often misunderstood. It is not an exception to copyright law, but a defense in case of a copyright infringement claim. The fair use doctrine is presented as a set of guidelines for analyzing each particular situation in which an instructor wishes to use copyrighted material.  Fair use is interpretative: any fair use analysis must be decided on a case-by-case basis after balancing all four factors outlined in the Copyright Act.  You will need to show that you abided in good faith by weighing all four factors of fair use in your usage of the material.

The following factors should be evaluated in an analysis of fair use before using copyrighted materials in your course.

  1. Why is the work being used? (Works used for a non-profit educational institution, commentary, or criticism purposes, etc often fall within fair use.)
  2. What type of work is being used? (Published or non-published? Non-published work is actually less likely to be considered fair use.)
  3. How much of the work is being used? (The smaller the amount of the work, the more likely it falls under fair use—i.e., using a limited amount of images in a presentation.)
  4. What’s the effect on the market value? (Has your use of the copyrighted material lost or potentially lost money for the owners of the work?  If so, you are less likely to be able to claim a fair use.)

Still not sure if your use is fair?  Try this fair use evaluator tool from the American Library Association:

Additional Resources:

Northeastern University Office of General Counsel: Intellectual Property/Copyright page

United States Copyright Office: