Online Course-in-a-Box

Table of Contents 
Copyright in Online Courses

Note that the information offered on this page do not constitute legal advise. Also, this page specifically addresses issues of copyright in online courses. For more thorough information on copyright see the Copyright Reference Guide at the University Library.


Below are two videos to help you with topics of Copyright and Fair Use in an online course. These videos are featured in the College of Education's Instructional Design MasterTrack series on Coursera.


US copyright law has an exception for face-to-face teaching that covers most uses of copyrighted material [17 U.S.C. §110(1)]. However, the law is still catching up to online and blended formats, and the current exception for online instruction [TEACH Act, 17 U.S.C. §110(2)] is much more complex and not currently in use at the University of Illinois. Depending on your use and the material, there are a number of different options for managing copyright in online courses.

Best Practices

  • Link out. Linking to content is the simplest way to include copyrighted material in your course. However, content can be taken down and not all websites are accessible to students with disabilities, so this a better option for supplemental material.
  • Practice fair use. Fair use is an exception in US copyright law [17 U.S.C. §107] that establishes the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances, especially when the cultural or social benefits of the use are significant. This includes purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, and research. The law includes a four-factor test to decide fair use, which a judge will decide for or against in court (see the Resources section for information on how to evaluate fair use for online teaching). 
  • Consider using resources from the public domain and works not in copyright. Works by the federal government do not have copyright and can be used in any course format. The public domain also includes works with expired copyright terms. (Generally any works published before January 1, 1923, or 95 years prior to the current year. See Resources for information on term lengths.) Works with minimal creativity, such as facts, formulas, and procedures also do not have copyright.
  • Understand the Creative Commons and educational licenses. The Creative Commons (CC) is a set of six licenses that allow copyrighted works to be used under certain conditions, such as with attribution to the author, in a non-commercial format, etc. If using a CC-licensed work, check their license descriptions to make sure your use fits their terms. There is also a range of other works licensed more generally for “educational use.” Some are designed specifically for face- to-face teaching, so check terms of use to make sure online use is permitted.
  • Request permission when necessary. Some copyright holders will give permission to use their work in online courses (works by other colleges and universities, visual materials from required textbooks, etc.). Guidelines for permissions requests include:
    • Keep a written record of any agreements.
    • Clearly define your proposed use duration, the amount of the work, how it will be used.
    • Highlight relevant technological protections, e.g., “content hosted on Illinois servers will be password-protected, not available for download, and limited to students enrolled in the course.”


Copyright registration and term lengths

Fair Use

Open Access Media Resources

University Library