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Library Research Guides

Copyright and Course Websites

The guide provides answers to common questions about copyright and course websites.

Does fair use automatically permit all educational uses?

No. Having an educational purpose weighs in favor of fair use. However, it can still be outweighed by the other fair use factors and subfactors.

If I have determined that it is fair use to use a work in one term, do I need to reassess fair use if I use the work again?

If any of the facts that impact the fair use analysis change, you should reassess fair use. For instance, the scope of fair use is broader if there is no way to license or purchase copies of a work. If copies or licenses become available, you should do a new fair use analysis.

Will limiting access to the work improve the fair use case?

In general, limiting access to the work will improve the fair use case. If possible, limit access to materials on your course website to students and necessary course personnel. Also, when appropriate, consider limiting the length of time a work is available on the course website in order to improve the fair use case.

Does fair use permit me to post library materials on my course website?

Sometimes. Whether fair use permits you to copy any particular work or a portion of a work for use on your course website has to be determined case by case based on the fair use factors. If the library resource you want to use is a licensed electronic resource, such as an ebook or an article database, your use of the item will depend on contractual terms in addition to fair use. 

In general, it is best to link to those licensed items instead of posting copies on your course website. If you need to use a licensed resource in a way that is not permitted by the license, contact a relevant library subject specialist. These librarians can help you obtain library resources for your course. For example, a subject specialist may be able to buy a license for an ebook that allows a greater number of simultaneous users.

What if a work is out of print and not available for licensing? Does that improve the fair use case?

First, note that being out of print is not the same as being in the public domain. If you believe the work is in the public domain, you may wish to consult the public domain resources elsewhere in this guide before making a fair use analysis.

For in-copyright works, being out of print and unavailable for licensing will weigh in favor of fair use. Specifically, it will improve the fair use case under the fourth factor. However  some uses of out-of-print and unlicensable works would not be fair. Be sure to consider all of the fair use factors when making your analysis.

What if I only post a small percentage of a work on my course website, such as one chapter from a twenty-chapter book? Does that improve the fair use case?

Using less of a work will generally improve your fair use case. However, there is no fixed percentage below which all uses are fair. Some uses of small amounts of works are not fair. Conversely, it can be fair use to use the entire work in some cases. Be sure to consider all of the fair use factors when making your analysis.

Should I document my fair use decisions? How?

It is not necessary to document your fair use analysis in order to rely on it later in court. However, keeping notes on your fair use decisions can make it easier to review them. That may be helpful if you want to review fair use decisions made by others (e.g., department staff and graduate student instructors) or if you will be using a work again and need to review your own fair use decision.

If you want to record your fair use analysis, we recommend the Fair Use Checklist from the Columbia Copyright Advisory Office. The Fair Use Checklist is also helpful as a guide for those who are learning to apply fair use.