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 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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