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Open Educational Resources: Copyright, Fair Use, and Open Education Resources

Creative Commons licences explained


What is Copyright?

Any work created after 1989 is protected under copyright as soon as it is created, and is protected for the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years.

U.S. Copyright Law (title 17, U.S. Code) grants the creator the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the work (download, PDF email attachment, photocopy, scan)
  • distribute copies of the work by sale, rental, lease, or lending (including using the internet)
  • prepare derivatives (sequels or spin-offs)
  • display or perform a work publicly 

For more in-depth information, view the full text of the U.S. Copyright Law. 

Works are usually protected for the life of the author plus seventy years. For works published before 1998, the exact status of some works can vary. 

How can I use copyrighted stuff?

  • You can link to the work.
    • Make sure you cite and give attribution to the owner of the work, but you do not have to request permission to post a link.
  • You can request permissions from the copyright owner.
  • You can use the work in accordance with an existing license. 
  • You may be using the work in a way that falls under exceptions and limitations of copyright law, like fair use, section 108 for libraries, or the T.E.A.C.H. Act!

What is protected?

Copyright protects works that are original and fixed, or, written down or recorded on a physical or digital medium.

Here is a list of works that are protected by U.S. copyright law:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works
  • Dramatic works
  • Pantomime works
  • Choreographic works 
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Do I need to get permission to use a copyrighted material? Answer is YES!

Step one is to find the copyright owner. 

  • The owner could be the original creator or a publisher. The publisher's site is a good place to visit to locate information on requesting specific permissions. 

Step two would be to contact the copyright owner.

  • Remember to include as much information as possible about your proposed use! 
    • a complete description of the material you want to use (citation, page numbers, how much you want to use)
    • explain how you want to use the material
    • explain how important or relevant it is to include this information
    • how many times or how often the material will be used, the form of distribution

Step three is to remember to cite your source! If you are using a figure or other complete material, you should include a note to the reader in addition to obtaining permission for the use. 

What if I can't find the copyright holder?

If the copyright holder cannot be located or is unresponsive, it is better to be safe than to be sorry! 

  • Use a limited amount that qualifies for fair use
  • Use alternative material

Need More Help?


What is the public domain?                                      

The Public Domain is a state of belonging to the public as a whole, and not being protected by copyright law.

If a work's copyright protection has expired, been forfeited, or is inapplicable, the work can be said to be in the Public Domain.

As of January 2019, works published in the U.S. and before 1923 have entered the Public Domain.

How to determine if a work is in the public domain?                                                                                                                            



What is fair use?    


There are times when the use of copyright material is said to be "fair use". The rulings on fair use come from the Fair Use Doctrine (section 107 of U.S. Copyright law), passed in 1976. Section 107 describes for what purposes use or reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair.

Some of these include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. 

Fair use requires a case-by-case and individualized determination of each source used. Just because you plan to use the source for teaching doesn't make its use fair. 

How to determine fair use?

There are four factors considered in the determination of fair use:

  • The purpose and character of use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit education purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work


Fair Use Tools:

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons licenses help content creators share their work freely, more freely than copyright allows. A license will detail the terms and conditions the author has established with regards to using the work, so that the public can use the work without first obtaining permission from the author. 

How does the license work?

When using the Creative Commons website to choose a license, the resulting license is made up of three parts:

  • the legal language
  • an image with symbols and letters
  • a layer invisible to users and only readable by computers, that works like a tag, allowing your image to be categorized as CC by search engines. 

Still not sure?  Use the Open Attribution Builder to help find the right license for you.

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