Teaching & Learning Tips

A collection of tips and tools designed to aid in transitioning instruction online.

Copyright Best Practices

May 19, 2020



Note that the information offered on this page does not constitute legal advise. 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.

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. 

Listen to a Copyright Specialist talk about Coypright, Public Domain, and Open Access in this video

Best Practices to avoid copyright infringement

  • 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. 

Additional Resources