21 Copyright

Using existing materials in your teaching

Copyright issues will almost certainly arise if you use any existing media (books, articles, videos, etc) in your teaching. In many cases, the copyright issues involved in teaching online are not that different than when teaching in person, but there are a few points of divergence. University of Minnesota instructors have some flexibility in terms of how they handle copyright issues – because it’s reasonable to approach the issues in a few different ways. The University’s Office of General Counsel has affirmed that it is appropriate for instructors to make their own informed assessments about fair use and other copyright issues, as described in the University of Minnesota Instructors Rights and Responsibilities page.

Below we outline a few different reasonable approaches to copyright issues when using existing materials.

Linking to publicly available materials

The easiest way to share materials with students is to share links, rather than make or distribute copies. Sharing a link to publicly available online content (web pages, online newspapers, online videos, etc) raises few copyright issues and requires no permission. With subscription or paywalled online content, it is usually permissible to share a link that other people may access via their own subscriptions.

Be wary of sharing links with students if the linked content itself seems to be obviously infringing (e.g., a video of a currently-in-theaters feature film that appears to have been recorded inside a movie theater). This can be considered knowing encouragement to infringe. However, if the linked content is not obviously infringing (e.g., a copy of a book chapter apparently shared by the author or publisher), sharing links is usually fine.

Linking via subscription access

For materials to which the University provides subscription access (such as library subscription ebooks, journals, and databases), linking is usually what the subscription contracts permit. Downloading University subscription content and re-uploading it to a course website may violate subscription contracts. It also obscures students’ use of the resource, which may affect ongoing subscription decisions in times of limited budgets. Most campus libraries have services that can help you create durable links – for example, in the Twin Cities, further information is available at Course material solutions for instructors. For information about durable linking services at other system campuses, see the list of campus libraries contacts below.

Making copies when use is already allowed by law or a license

There are some materials for which copyright is not a barrier to copying and distribution – including materials in which the copyright has ended, or never existed (i.e., items in the public domain), and those covered by an open license enabling use, such as a Creative Commons license.

  • Many Open Access academic publications provide Creative Commons licenses for all published content. There is not a unified list of all open-licensed academic publications, but the Directory of Open Access Journals, for example, indexes primarily publications that are fully open.
  • There are numerous fully-open textbooks – often referred to, along with other open teaching materials, as “Open Educational Resources” (or OER). One catalog of open textbooks is maintained via UMN at the Open Textbook Library.
  • Using open licensed materials usually requires attribution with some additional details not commonly included in academic citations – read more about that in the Libraries’ attribution guidance.

There may also be times when a University subscription, such as to a stock image library, directly allows copying and use by students, faculty, and staff. Contact your local communications and/or AT support professionals for more information.

Making a fair use judgment call

Instructors can sometimes make copies for their students without permission, in the physical world or online, via the “fair use” provision of copyright law, which sets out some flexible rules describing where use may be permitted in a number of contexts. Education is one of the contexts where fair use often applies. However, it does require a judgment call every time.

There are a variety of things to think about in determining if a use is a fair use (and no single one is determinative, so you have to think through all of them every time). Some of these considerations may be familiar – they include questions like “how much of the work are you using?” and “what is your purpose in copying this material?” They are outlined in detail at the Libraries Copyright Services page on fair use, and some specific considerations related to image use in teaching, including some guidelines from a variety of scholarly and professional organizations, are at the Libraries Copyright Services page about Using Images in Teaching (online and otherwise).

Other sources of materials

When you can’t link to materials, and you don’t think it would be fair use to make your own copies without permission, you may still be able to use the materials by seeking permission. Contact your local librarian or academic technologist.

You may also find sometimes that it’s more straightforward to locate alternative materials, rather than hash through permission or fair use judgment calls. Library staff members may be able to help instructors identify relevant alternative materials that are openly licensed, or that are in the public domain.

Ownership of instructional materials

Under the University policies referenced below, most instructors will own the copyright in instructional materials that they create. However, this is not universally true: the University may own the copyright in what are called “directed works” from anywhere on any campus (i.e., works which an employee is asked to create, and for which they are given resources beyond those normally available to their peers). Contributions from technical or instructional support staff members may also be owned by the University in some cases. On some campuses, and in some schools or departments, there are also broadly applicable local policies and/or terms of employment that specify University ownership of some or all teaching materials.

Student ownership of academic work

As a matter of both law and University policy, students own the copyright in works they create for course assignments, and generally with respect to their involvement at the University, unless they create works as an employee. University policy also dictates that, despite student ownership, instructors can set requirements and expectations for how those students must share or provide access to their works. These requirements and expectations must be disclosed in the syllabus.

University Copyright Policy

Two University policies provide guidance on the specific topic of ownership of works produced at the University (including students’ ownership of their course assignments): the Copyright Ownership policy (and associated links) and the Board of Regents Copyright policy.

If you would like a consultation on copyright-related questions or a workshop in your department on copyright, contact Nancy Sims (nasims@umn.edu) or copyinfo@umn.edu (both with the University Libraries.)


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Guidelines for Online Teaching and Design Copyright © by TeachingSupport@UMN.edu and Faculty Development for Online Teaching task group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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