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Library Research Guides

Copyright and Course Websites

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

When to Use a Work on a Course Website

University of Michigan policy allows instructors to make their own decisions about posting materials on course websites, such as Canvas sites. Often, those decisions involve legal questions about copyright. The guidelines below are meant to assist instructors in making these decisions. 

  1. Only post a work on a course website if:
    1. The work is not copyrightable,
    2. The work has entered the public domain,
    3. The use you are making does not implicate any of the rights of the copyright holder,
    4. The use you are making is permitted by fair use or another user’s right,
    5. You hold the copyright in the work, OR
    6. The use you are making is permitted by a license from the copyright holder.
  2. Where possible, link to a legitimate online copy of the work instead of posting a copy of the work on your course website. US copyright law always permits you to link to a legitimate copy of the work hosted elsewhere, even when the work is protected by copyright. For instance, it is permissible to link to many of the electronic resources purchased by the library. 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 may be able to help you obtain library resources for your course.
  3. If you post a copy of the work, always include (and never remove) copyright information associated with it. For instance, be sure to include copyright notices (the c in a circle symbol, ©, and any information following it) as well as authors’ and publishers’ names. You don’t need to track down additional copyright information – you just need to retain what is already there.
  4. Even when copyright law permits your use of a work, it may be illegal to circumvent copy-prevention technology in order to make that use. For instance, it is generally illegal, under 17 U.S.C. § 1201, to circumvent the Content Scramble System that restricts access to works on some DVDs. However, the US Copyright Office creates specific exceptions to this law every three years. For information about the current exceptions, please consult the 2015 Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies (PDF).

Using Uncopyrightable Works

Some materials do not meet the standards for copyright protection — they are uncopyrightable. Facts, ideas, titles, short phrases, and works prepared by an officer or employee of the US Government as part of that person's official duties all fall into this category.

Using such materials on a course website does not raise any copyright concerns. For more information about what is copyrightable, you may wish to consult the Copyrightability page of our Copyright Basics guide.

Using Works That Have Entered the Public Domain

Works that are not subject to copyright are in the public domain. They may be used without permission. In the United States, a copyrightable work is in the public domain if:

  • It was published before March 1, 1989 and did not comply with one or more of the required formalities. (Note: if the work was first published outside of the United States, copyright restoration may apply. For more information, see Copyright Restoration Under the URAA (PDF).)
  • The term of its copyright protection has ended.
  • Its copyright holder placed it in the public domain using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

Every country has its own rules about when a copyrightable work enters the public domain.

We recommend using Cornell's chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, and Berkeley's PDF handbook, Is it in the Public Domain? to determine whether a particular work is in the public domain in the United States.

Please be aware that being in the public domain is not the same thing as being "publicly accessible." Many works that are freely available on the internet are still under copyright.

For more information about what is in the public domain, you may wish to consult the Duration & Formalities page of our Copyright Basics guide.

Using Works Without Implicating the Rights of the Copyright Holder

In most cases, posting a work that is protected by copyright to your course website will implicate the rights of the copyright holder. (You may still be permitted to post the work under a user’s right, such as fair use.) The copyright holder’s rights are not implicated if what you post is neither literally copied from nor a substantially similar to the original. 

Also remember that, under US law, linking to a legitimate online copy of the work hosted elsewhere will not implicate any of the rights of the copyright holder.

For more information about the rights of copyright holders, you may wish to consult the Rights of Copyright Holders page of our Copyright Basics guide.

Using Works as Permitted by User’s Rights

Copyright law gives users the right to use copyrighted material without permission under certain circumstances. These provisions are often called exceptions and limitations to copyright law. In the United States, they include fair use, certain uses during face-to-face teaching and distance education, and certain uses by libraries and archives. 

Fair use is the broadest of the user’s rights in US copyright law and the most likely to apply to uses of works on course websites.  There are four factors to consider when determining whether your use is a fair one. You must consider all the factors, but not all the factors have to favor fair use for the use to be fair.

The four fair use factors are

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Fair use favors “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, [and] research.” While many uses for educational purposes are fair, not all are. You need to evaluate your use each time you are reproducing copyrighted material — to show in your class, to hand out copies, to include in your writing, or to post on your course website. Because posting works on a course website often depends on fair use, another page of this guide is dedicated to frequently asked questions about course websites and fair use.

For more information about the rights of users, you may wish to consult the Rights of Users page of our Copyright Basics guide.

Using Works Whose Copyrights You Hold

If you are the copyright holder for a particular work, posting it to your course website does not raise copyright concerns. However, you may not hold copyright in all the works you have created.

Under US law, the initial copyright holder is the author of the work. In most cases, the creator of the work is considered the author. If two or more people make copyrightable contributions to a single work, they hold copyright jointly and are called joint authors. In the case of a “work made for hire,” the author under copyright law is the person who employed or commissioned the creator of the work, rather than the creator of the work herself. If you are a University of Michigan faculty member and you created a scholarly work within the scope of your employment, the Regents have transferred the copyright back to you, subject to certain conditions and exceptions. Consult the University of Michigan copyright policy for further details.

If you are the author of the work under copyright law or are a University of Michigan faculty member who holds most of the copyright (transferred from the Regents) in a scholarly work, you still need to check that you have not transferred away your copyrights. For instance, it is common to transfer some or all of your copyright in a publishing agreement. If the work at issue has been published, you will need to consult your publishing agreement to see whether you can post it on your course website.

For more information about who holds copyright in a particular work, consult the Who Holds Copyright section of our Copyright Basics guide.

Using Works Under a License

A license is a grant of permission from the copyright holder. If a license permits you to post a work on your course website, doing so will not raise copyright concerns.

In some cases, the copyright holder may already have granted you a license. For example, Creative Commons licenses and open source software licenses allow copyright holders to grant permission to the world at large. For this reason, they are called public licenses. If the work you want to use is available under a public license, and your intended use complies with the terms of that license, you do not need to seek further permission. For more information about Creative Commons licenses, refer to our Creative Commons guide. There may also be a non-public license that covers your use of the work. For instance, many colleges and universities license sets of copyrighted works for use by their affiliates.

Another option is to seek permission for the specific use you are making. To do that, you need to identify the work’s copyright holder(s) and contact them to ask for permission to use the work. 

For more information about copyright licenses, you may wish to consult the Permission page of our Copyright Basics guide or our guide Obtaining Copyright Permissions.