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Copyright vs. Open Licensing: Copyright

Use this guide to understand the difference between Copyright and Open Licenses

Purpose of Copyrightcopyright sympol

As stated in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, of the US Constitution, the purpose of Copyright is "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

When an idea is expressed in a fixed medium, whether it be a painting, a story, a dance choreography, or a poem on the back of a napkin (though certainly not limited to those categories), it has legal copyright protections for a set period of time, allowing the creator to use or exploit the fruit of their work as they see fit, or not at all. In the past, this copyright required some formality in the way of registration or notice, but that is no longer the case for new works (Cornell University Library, 2022).

The circular, Copyright Basicsmakes clear what works are covered by Copyright Law.

There are some expressions, including facts, local laws, or works of the US Government (to name a few), which are excluded from copyright protections. These are born directly into the public domain, free to copy, reuse, adapt or distribute (Cornell University Library, 2022).

What Rights Does the Copyright Owner Have?

Title 17, section 106 of the U.S. Code lays out the exclusive rights of the Copyright owner. These are the right to:

  • Reproduce the work,
  • Create a derivative work,
  • Distribute the work,
  • Perform the work, and
  • Display the work

Copyright FAQs

Use the link below to learn about requesting permission and how to seek copyright for your own work

When Can I Use Others' Copyrighted Works?

When you want to use others' copyrighted materials in your teaching, you need to ask yourself three important questions:

1.   Is the material in the public domain? If so, you are free to use it without seeking permission.

2.   Does my proposed use fall under exemptions to the copyright law?

Section 107 provides some limitations on the copyright holder's exclusive rights, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. In determining if a use is fair use there are several factors that must all be considered. These 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.

You can use the Fair Use Checklist, created by Kenneth D. Crews (formerly of Columbia University) and Dwayne K. Buttler (University of Louisville), as a guide to help you consider whether or not your intended use falls under the fair use exemption. Note: This checklist is not about simply checking and counting boxes. Instead, it is a guide to help you weigh the factors of fair use against your intended use. 

3.   Do I need to seek permission to use the material?

  • No - The material is already licensed by your institution for your proposed use
  • No - There are terms and conditions attached to the work or the Web site where you found it permitting your use
  • Yes - If none of the above apply.

What About Coursepack?

Check out what Stanford Libraries has to say about Academic Coursepacks. Even in light of the case, Cambridge University v. Patton, 769 F.3d 1232 (11th Cir. 2014), you should follow the rule that you need to obtain permission before reproducing copyrighted materials for a coursepack.


The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act was signed into law on November 2, 2002 in an effort to balance the needs of distance learners and educators with the rights of copyright holders. The TEACH Act applies to distance education that includes the participation of any enrolled student, on or off campus.

But there is still a considerable gap between what the statute authorizes for face-to-face teaching and for online education. For example, as indicated above, an educator may show or perform any work related to the curriculum, regardless of the medium, face-to-face in the classroom. There are no limits and no permissions required. Under 110(2), however, even as revised and expanded by the TEACH Act, the same educator would have to pare down some of those materials to show them to online students. The audiovisual works and dramatic musical works may only be shown as clips -- "reasonable and limited portions" (University of Texas Libraries, 2022).

To learn more, check out TEACH Act and the accompanying TEACH Act Checklist on the Copyright Crash Course from the University of Texas.

Tools to Determine Copyright Coverage

There are a lot of different issues involved in figuring out if U.S. copyright law requires you to seek permission (and often, pay a fee) to use others' materials in your teaching.

There are many tools available to help you determine if your intended use of others' materials is allowed under U.S. copyright law. Below are two tools you can use to determine if your use is allowed and/or if you need to seek permission to use material: