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Using Copyrighted Works in the Classroom

Course Resources

We all have resources we have come to rely on in our courses, whether it is a tried-and-true text or a VHS from 1987. Sometimes utilizing those materials in a modern environment can be challenging because of copyright. The CSU Libraries have tools and resources to help:

  • Ebook packages allow the freedom of breaking from traditional print texts across multiple disciplines. Ebooks are available from many different publishers and with many different licenses. Some allow unlimited usage; some allow multiple, concurrent users; and some are only available to one person at a time. Link to the ebook using the permalink from your library’s website.
  • The CSU Libraries provide subsidized access to several hundred million full-text articles via subscription databases and publisher ejournal collections. Instructors are strongly encouraged to identify and assign relevant articles from these collections for use as required or supplemental course readings. By linking out to full-text articles and ebooks, rather than downloading copies and storing them locally, there are no copyright restrictions or costs associated with their use, and libraries can maintain statistics on usage to better inform collection decisions.
  • Streaming videos are viewed over the web, rather than downloaded to a local device. The Libraries subscribe to many packages of streaming videos. Faculty can embed clips and create playlists: Ask your librarians how!
  • Digital rights management (DRM) refers to the rules media vendors put on a user's ability to save, share, or otherwise copy items from their media collections. DRM may also include a limit on the number of users who can access the items simultaneously. Each media and ebook collection has different DRM rules: Look to their help pages or ask your librarian to find out.

Showing Movies

As part of your class/within a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard/Canvas/Moodle:  Movies can be an integral part of a course’s learning materials. Showing a movie as part of a course generally falls under Fair Use, because there is no charge for admission and the movie is an integral part of your curriculum. Your campus library may even offer a service for digitizing a movie (or a section of a movie) and streaming it within your campus LMS. On Campus, not part of a class:  Showing movies for entertainment can be a fun activity for students, and a way to take a break from the stress of the semester. However, public performance does not fall under Fair Use and will require the permission of the copyright owner—and perhaps a public performance fee. Some of the movies in your library collection may have public performance rights: You should check with your librarian or your media library. Obtaining public performance rights isn’t difficult, and your library might even be able to assist you with this. It is often a matter of making a phone call or sending an email to the film distributor. Swank Motion Pictures and Criterion Pictures USA are two such service providers. If you aren’t able to pay a fee for performance, then you might consider showing a film that is in the public domain or whose creators allow public performance. The Library of Congress has some information about finding films within the public domain.


Uses that would qualify as use when materials are shared with students who are on the physical campus may not qualify as Fair Use if students are in an online course. The “Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act,” commonly known as the TEACH Act, was enacted by Congress on October 4, 2002. It is a full revision of Section 110(2) of the U.S. Copyright Act. Its provisions broadened the scope of copyrighted materials that could be transmitted digitally to support distance education and courses with a digital component, with certain restrictions.

Obtaining Permissions


Permissions to use copyrighted material must be obtained when the use is not covered by copyright law and its exceptions. Permissions should be in writing and from the copyright holder. Maintain copies of all of the correspondence. What do publishers or journals allow you to do with yours or others work? SHERPA/RoMEO is a database of publisher policies. Check SHERPA or the journal itself for information. Other resources include:

Getting Permission

Step 1: Contact the Copyright Owner Step 2: Secure Permission Step 3: Keep a Record Permission requests should include:

  1. Your name, address, telephone number, and email address.
  2. Your title/position and name of university.
  3. The date of your request.
  4. A complete and accurate citation (this helps to narrow down exactly to the work you are requesting permission for and whether the requestee holds the copyright at all).
  5. A precise description of the proposed use of the copyrighted material as well as when and for how long the material will be used. Be sure to state if you intend to provide online open access to this resource. Include the URL to the digital collection if applicable.
  6. If mailed by post, incorporate a signature line for the copyright holder including their title if they are representing a company and the date. If this is an email request, convert the email to PDF and save. It helps to rename the file and keep in a folder of permission requests if you are seeking more than one. Example: IEEE_Leroy_permission2010.pdf (IEEE = publisher name; Leroy = author’s name; permission2010 = object and date of request). Convert response to PDF as a record, it helps to add YES or NO before “permission” in the file name structure (example: IEEE_Leroy_YESpermission2010.pdf)

What If I Reach a “Dead End”? Can It Be Considered an  Orphan Work?


  1. You can't identify a copyright owner
  2. You can't locate the copyright owner
  3. You've contacted the copyright owner but receive no response

Possible solutions:

  1. Reevaluate the possibility that your use is fair
  2. Replace the materials with other works
  3. Alter your planned use
  4. Conduct a risk-benefit analysis

Resources: Places to Help Find the Copyright Holder

Common Scenarios

We will next examine the fair use merit for different types of copyrighted works used in the classroom.

Journal Article for Classroom Use

SCENARIO 1:  A professor copies one article from a periodical for distribution to the class.  FAIR USE?  Yes. Distribution of multiple copies for classroom use is fair use. However, the repeated use of a copyrighted work, from term-to-term, requires more scrutiny in a fair use evaluation. Repeated use, as well as a large class size, may weigh against fair use.

Posting Copyrighted Article to Web Page

SCENARIO 2:  A professor has posted his class notes on a web page available to the public. He wants to scan an article from a copyrighted journal and add it to his web page.  FAIR USE?  No, if access is open to the public, then this use is probably not a fair use. No exclusively educational purpose can be guaranteed by putting the article on the web, and such conduct would arguably violate the copyright holder's right of public distribution. If access to the web page is restricted, then it is more likely to be fair use.

Course Packs

SCENARIO 3:  A professor copies excerpts of documents, including copyrighted text books and journals, from various sources. The professor plans to distribute the materials to his class as a coursepack.  FAIR USE?  Generally speaking, you need to obtain permission before reproducing copyrighted materials for an academic course pack. It's the instructor's obligation to obtain clearance for materials used in class. Instructors typically delegate this task to one of the following: clearance services, university bookstores or copy shops, or Department administration.


SCENARIO 4:  A professor wishes to use a textbook he considers to be too expensive. He makes copies of the book for the class.  FAIR USE?  No. Although the use is educational, the professor is using the entire work, and by providing copies of the entire book to his students, he has affected the market. This conduct clearly interferes with the marketing monopoly of the copyright owner. The professor should place a copy on reserve or require the students to purchase the book.  SCENARIO 5:  A professor decides to make three copies of a textbook and place them on reserve in the library for the class.  FAIR USE?  No. This conduct still interferes with the marketing monopoly of the copyright owner. The professor may place a copy of the textbook, not the copies, on reserve.

Public Domain Materials

SCENARIO 6:  A teacher copies a Shakespearean play from a copyrighted anthology.  FAIR USE?  Yes. The play is in the public domain and not subject to copyright protection.

Unpublished Letters

SCENARIO 7:A professor of psychology desires to edit and publish a collection of unpublished letters in the library archives.  FAIR USE?  The answer to this scenario requires further information. Has the copyright protection expired? Are the letters subject to any agreement the library made with the donor? Can the author or authors of the letters be located? Is the library agreeable to publication? This is the type of problem that requires a detailed legal and factual analysis. One should consult the institution's office of legal affairs for advice.

Journal Article for Personal Use

SCENARIO 8:  A professor wishes to make a copy of an article from a copyrighted periodical for her files to use later.  FAIR USE?  Yes. This is a classic example of personal fair use so long as the professor uses the article for her personal files and reference.


SCENARIO 9:  A library has a book that is out of print and unavailable. The book is an important one in the professor's field that she needs for her research. The professor would like to copy the book for her files.  FAIR USE?  Yes. This is another example of personal use. If one engages in the fair use analysis, one finds that: (1) the purpose of the use is educational versus commercial; (2) the professor is using the book, a creative work, for research purposes; (3) copying the entire book would normally exceed the bounds of fair use, however, since the book is out of print and no longer available from any other source, the copying is acceptable; (4) finally, the copying will have no impact on the market for the book because the book is no longer available from any other source.  SCENARIO 10:  Using the same facts as explained in SCENARIO 10 could the professor copy the book and place the book on reserve in the library? Could the professor scan the book into her computer and place the book onto the World Wide Web?  FAIR USE?  If the professor placed the book on reserve in the library, the use would be considered a fair use. However, if the professor placed the book on the Web, then the use is not a fair use. Placement on the Web allows unlimited access to the book. This would affect the copyright holder's public distribution of the book.


SCENARIO 11:  The library owns a film on DVD that is typically viewed each semester during class time; the DVD is held within the Reserves collection. This semester, the course in question will have two online sections and one on-campus section. The faculty member has asked the library whether a digital copy could be made available via the Learning Management System for the distance education students. The film is not currently available for the library to purchase a copy via its streaming media provider.  FAIR USE?  Maybe. Because the course in question is online, Fair Use must be considered in tandem with the TEACH Act, which specifically addresses distance education. Per Section 110(2) of the TEACH Act, our instructor would have to pare down the film to "reasonable and limited portions" to show them to the online students or make them available over the internet to face-to-face students. Each individual institution must decide for itself the definition of reasonable and limited.