Instructors may encounter questions of copyright when assembling a sourcebook, developing handouts, or working on a course website.  Copyright is a complex and evolving area of the law, but there are certain principles that endure, and copyright infringement is a serious concern.

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” as soon as they are fixed in a tangible form. 

The copyright owner (the author, though often the publisher, if the author has transferred copyright) has the exclusive rights to reproduce the work, distribute copies of the work, create derivative works, and perform or display the work; or, authorize someone else to do the same. 

There are a few alternatives and exceptions to these exclusive rights, which means you do not have to seek permission for every use.  Details follow:


  • U.S. Federal Government–produced works are not copyrighted.
  • You can provide direct links to library-licensed electronic resources (e.g., JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, etc.) or other online content.
  • Work that is in the public domain may be used without seeking permission because the copyright has expired.  This includes works published in the U.S. before 1923, unpublished works from authors who died before 1943, and unpublished works from anonymous/pseudonymous works created before 1893.
  • You may use content with open licenses (e.g., DASHCreative Commons, or WikiMedia Commons).


Note: Fair use is a balancing test, which takes all four factors into account for the use of each copyrighted item.  In cases where you determine your use is not fair, you may look for an alternative or seek permission.  For more information on fair use, please see the Office for General Counsel’s Copyright and Fair Use Guide: A Guide for the Harvard Community

Remember to properly attribute whatever item it is you are using - whether it is under copyright, in the public domain, or a linked resource.

Copyright infringement has serious implications, so please make prudent decisions and seek help when you have questions - whether it be about something you would like to or have been asked to copy or to post to a course website, or otherwise.  Please contact Gen Ed Acting Director Laura Hess with any questions or concerns.