17 Copyright and Fair Use

Perry Collins

Copyright is an issue all of us encounter daily, even if we don’t know it. Sharing a link, asking a colleague for an article, and finding images for presentations all involve circulating digital material that is likely protected by U.S. Copyright Law. In our teaching, we are eager to share resources with students in ways that are convenient and reduce course costs; understanding the basics of copyright and fair use makes it easier to do this confidently and legally.

What are the basics?

Everyone at UF has a responsibility to make a good faith effort to follow copyright law, including provisions that give leeway for educational uses of in-copyright materials. Instructors and TAs should also be prepared to point students toward information on copyright, a topic that will come up throughout their academic and professional careers.

It’s helpful to start with the basics of copyright law:

  • What is copyright? Copyright is really a bundle of different rights to reproduce, disseminate, adapt, perform, or display protected material.
  • What can be protected? Only material that is fixed or tangible is covered; this could include documents, images, curricula, videos, etc., but not unrecorded thoughts or ideas. Copyright does not protect common symbols or facts. For example, a simple, computer-generated pie chart illustrating quantitative data would likely not be protected by copyright.
  • How long does copyright last? The current term of copyright is the life of the creator plus 70 years, or 95 years from publication for works created by organizations. It’s safe to assume most contemporary materials are protected by copyright law; if your course makes use of older materials, you may want to consult this chart published by Cornell University Library.

If most materials are in copyright, am I allowed to share with students?

Fortunately, you have a number of legal options to choose from when sharing course materials with students:

Link to the Libraries

The Libraries invest millions of dollars every year to ensure UF students have access to a rich collection of journals, books, databases, newspapers, and other materials.

Can’t find what you need? You can contact a subject specialist librarian or enter a request through the Libraries’ course reserves system. In many cases the Libraries may be able to purchase materials such as ebooks or streaming video for use in courses, so it’s always worth asking if you don’t see a specific item in the catalog.

Note that most of the Libraries’ legal agreements with content providers require that you link directly to the content. For instance, you may link from Canvas to a journal article, but you may not download the article and upload the PDF back to Canvas. This means students will need to learn how to login off-campus to fully access Libraries materials.

Find it online

Sometimes you’re in a hurry or looking for digital content such as images or short videos the Libraries don’t typically purchase. Most materials you find on the Internet are protected by copyright, and you should not assume it’s okay to upload web content to Canvas or email to students without first considering where the material came from and whether or not you are legally allowed to use it.

The best option here is to search for “openly licensed” materials, meaning the copyright owner has shared them with a notice that anyone may use the material as long as they follow certain guidelines. The most common type of license is known as Creative Commons. Google Images, YouTube, and many other websites make it possible to search specifically for textbooks, scholarly literature, images, music, and videos where copyright holders have shared using Creative Commons licenses.

If you are looking for scholarly articles, one free tool is Unpaywall, which offers a web browser extension that automatically searches for freely available versions of articles. These links are fine to share with students.

A Note on Textbooks

In general, copyright law does not allow for scanning and sharing a full textbook with all students in a course. If you find a full scan of a textbook online, ask yourself whether it seems like the copyright owner (usually the publisher or author) uploaded the text. If you think sharing the text might violate copyright law, don’t do it!

If you are trying to connect students with the book they need, reach out to the Libraries. It may be possible to scan a portion of the book under the fair use provisions of copyright law, or it may even be possible to purchase an ebook. Note that some ebooks will be available for only 1-3 students at a time to access, so this might not fully cover the need for an entire course.

If it’s possible to select an alternative textbook or to suggest an option for a future semester, keep in mind freely available, high-quality books such as those available through OpenStax or the Open Textbook Library.

Leverage fair use

Defined in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law, fair use is a flexible tool available to everyone to share and repurpose in-copyright material in limited ways, especially in contexts such as education and scholarship. However, just because you use is educational does not automatically mean you can claim fair use. The most important questions to ask when considering fair use are:

  1. How are you contextualizing or adding value to the resource? For instance, if you plan to incorporate several figures from journal articles into slides for the course, how will you adapt those figures or include discussion points that meet the course goals?
  2. Are you only using enough of the materials to meet your intended purpose? For instance, using film clips in an online course to illustrate specific points is more likely to be a fair use than simply streaming the entire film.

What about my students? Do they need to worry about copyright?

While copyright law gives more flexibility for student coursework shared only with instructors and peers, increasingly students are sharing these materials online as part of course blogs, portfolios, etc. The risk of copyright infringement is greater when materials are shared with such a wide audience, and students should learn copyright basics that will be useful academically and professionally.

Students also own copyright to their coursework, and it is important to avoid sharing student work without written permission in order to adhere both to copyright law and to FERPA requirements.

Where else can I find information?


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UF TA Handbook Copyright © by Perry Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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