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 This includes works published in the U.S. before 1923, unpublished works from authors who died before 1943, and unpublished works from anonymous/pseudonymous works created before 1893.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., DASH, Creative Commons, or WikiMedia Commons).
- Fair use is a “[provision] of the copyright law [that] allow[s] use of copyrighted materials on a limited basis for specific purposes without requiring the permission of the copyright holder.” To determine whether your use of the copyrighted work is fair, you will apply the four factors below by examining
- the purpose and character of the use (nonprofit, educational, scholarly or research favors fair use),
- the nature of the copyrighted work (published, fact-based content favors fair use; unpublished or creative works enjoy more copyright protection),
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used (small amounts favor fair use; use only as much of the work as necessary to serve your purpose), and
- the effect of the use on the market (if there is no market effect or it is impossible to obtain permission, then this favors fair use).
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 Associate Director Laura Hess with any questions or concerns.
- Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office, Model Permission Letters.
- Office for General Counsel, Copyright and Fair Use.
- U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright Law of the United States of America.