What should I know about copyright?

If you want to use outside content in your class, you should be sure that you are following the copyright rules for that content. This applies to any content created by someone else including but not limited to artwork, films, music and texts. It is particularly important to check the copyright restrictions on content that you plan to put online, since doing so creates a permanent record of such use.

NIU Libraries can help

NIU Libraries has extensive information on copyright issues and staff who have been trained on copyright issues. The library also has licensed a number of copyrighted resources for NIU instructional use.


Understand the different levels of copyright

In the U.S., there are roughly three levels of copyright. Whether or not you can use a piece of content in your course depends on both the level of copyright on the content and how you want to use it.

Public domain content can be used by anyone in the U.S., for any purpose. These include:

  • Items that have “aged out” of copyright, i.e., items that were published in the U.S. before 1925 (this varies depending on publication circumstances, but 1925 is a safe cutoff point.(1)
  • Items produced by the U.S. government (note: some publications have copyrighted images from a third party that cannot be freely used—be sure to check document citations)
  • Items deliberately assigned to the public domain (i.e., shared by their creators)

Creative Commons (CC) licensed content can sometimes be used, depending on the purpose. These materials have been shared by their creators under a license that specifies the ways other people can use them. You can read about all the different types of Creative Commons licenses. There are many different options; you may even want to license content you create so other instructors can use your materials. Common restrictions may include, but are not limited to:

  • Attribution: say who the creator was in the material where the item was used
  • Share alike: any material that uses the item has to have the same CC license as the item and be shareable in that manner
  • Non-commercial: any material that uses the item cannot be used in a commercial manner
  • Open access materials are not necessarily creative commons licensed content but are another type of open resource you can use freely in your teaching

Look for open educational resources (OER). You can find an extensive list of OER databases on How can I find reliable content? 

Fully copyrighted material can only be used under Fair Use guidelines. The creator or owner retains all rights to how these materials can be used, modified or reproduced. These items can only be used in a limited manner according to Fair Use guidelines. Note that even Fair Use material must be cited appropriately. Fair Use has a lot of gray areas, but generally speaking, you should consider the following four questions when evaluating whether a copyrighted piece of content can be used in a course:

  1. What is the purpose and character of the use? Material that is transformed or used for purposes of analysis or review is generally acceptable for an educational use. 
  2. Is the copyrighted material already published? It is more likely that you can use published content than unpublished works, and you can often use excerpts from works of nonfiction (facts cannot be copyrighted).
  3. How much of the content are you using? It is more likely to fall under the umbrella of Fair Use if you use only a small part of a copyrighted work and do not use the main point of the work (such as the climactic scene in a film). Under no circumstances would the entire work be considered Fair Use, even if one feels it is necessary for instructional purposes. 
  4. What effect does your use have on the market? If using even a small part of a piece of content hinders the copyright owner’s ability to make a profit from their work, it is not considered Fair Use. For example, even though one photo from Getty Images is a very small part of their catalog, each use of the photo is expected to generate a fee. Using even one single photo without paying is considered a lost sale and would not be considered Fair Use. 

Copyright laws in other countries

All the information above only applies to the U.S. Copyright laws vary significantly from country to country, so what is considered Fair Use in the United States might be a copyright violation in another country. For example, students in Germany cannot legally access Project Gutenberg’s resources, although those resources are available to students in the U.S. 

Consider whether any of your students residing outside of the U.S. will have problems accessing materials. Instructors teaching fully or partially online classes and those teaching on campus but who have students attending from other locations should consider whether non-U.S. students will have access to the same materials as U.S.-based students. If this could be the case, look for alternative ways for students to have a similar experience such as by providing alternative materials or describing content that students cannot access. In addition, other countries also have differing levels of copyright on their governmental publications. For example, the United Kingdom’s government publications are not necessarily in the public domain. Keep this in mind if you ask students to access public documents or records in your course.


Useful resources and sources for sharable content


  • Pixabay.com has a wide variety of public domain images. They also link to copyrighted images for sale, so browse carefully.
  • A number of museums share photos of their works royalty-free.
  • When unsure who owns an image, try using Google reverse image search to identify where the image is from. 
    • A lot of Google image search results will be from Pinterest. Pinterest is not a publisher; it is a sharing platform for images owned by others, so further searching will be necessary. 


  • Many older publications that have aged out of copyright are available at Project Gutenberg

Next Steps

  • Use the links on this page to find content and images you can use in your course.

Creative Commons License

Flexible Teaching guides were developed by Duke Learning Innovation and adapted for NIU by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. They are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Didn’t find what you were looking for? Need more information? Contact the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) with your feedback and questions about this resource.

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CITL staff are available to answer your questions about Flexible Teaching. Give us a call or text 815-753-0595 or email citl@niu.edu for assistance. You can also schedule an appointment with one of our staff.

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