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Open Educational Resources: Copyright & Fair Use

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are course materials that are legally available on the internet for anyone to use, edit and distribute.

What is Copyright?

Copyright can be defined as the right to copy something. It gives an author control over who can use or reproduce his or her creative work. Do not confuse owning a copy of a work with the right to make a copy of that work.

Copyright is automatic. As soon as you create something, you own the copyright and have legal control over how it's used, regardless of whether a copyright notice is displayed or not.

Things that fall under copyright include:Copyright Symbol

  • Literary works.
  • Sound recordings, musical works and lyrics.
  • Dramatic works and motion pictures.
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.

Things that do not fall under copyright include:

  • Common knowledge.
  • Ideas, concepts, procedures, and discoveries.
  • Data, ingredients, lists, calendars, and rulers.
  • Government publications.
  • Titles, logos, slogans, etc. (These may be registered under trademark law.)
  • Works that are out of copyright.

Copyright protects a creator's ability to:

  • Reproduce a work
  • Distribute copies
  • Create derivatives of a work
  • Perform or display a work publically

What is Public Domain?

Public domain works are those which can usually be copied and used without permission from the owner. Copyright generally expires after a certain period of time, which means that most titles before that time are in the public domain.

Works generally fall into public domain:

  • 95 years after publication (if published before 1977)
  • 70 years after the creator has died (if published after 1977)
  • 95 years after publication or 120 years from creation if owned by a corporation (e.g. Disney), whichever comes first.

Please note that this is a general guideline. Copyright can be renewed and foreign works have different sets of copyright rules, so be sure to research each work carefully before assuming it is in the public domain.

What is Fair Use?

Fair Use is part of copyright law (Section 107) that determines the extent to which you may use or distribute a copyrighted work without requesting specific permission.

Fair use generally permits parts of a work to be used in the following examples:

  • Criticism or commentary
  • Parodies
  • Educational use to illustrate a lesson

Many instructors incorrectly assume this final bullet means that copyright does not apply to the classroom at all. Copyright law can be vague on what constitutes fair use, but it has established four factors as a basic rubric to judge.

Four Factors of Fair Use

Do not assume that citing a source or using it for educational purposes puts it under fair use. Copyright law is flexible, but four factors are weighed to determine whether copying material applies to fair use.

1. Purpose of the Use

Fair use is more likely to apply if the reason for its use is:

  • Noncommercial or nonprofit
  • Educational (teaching, scholarship, or research)
  • Commentary, criticism, parody, or news reporting
  • Preservation (e.g. storing a digital copy)
  • Transformative works (e.g. creating something new, with a different purpose from the original)

2. Nature of Original Work Used

Fair use is more likely to apply if the work being used is:

  • Purely factual, nonfiction, or educational
  • Published
  • Not a consumable product (e.g. standardized tests, workbooks)

3. Amount of Original Work Used

Fair use is more likely to apply if you use:

  • a smaller portion of the work (e.g. no more than 1 chapter, 1 article, or 10% of the work, as a rule of thumb)
  • a part of the work that does not define the work as creatively unique (e.g. not the "heart" of the work)

4. Effect on the Market of the Original Work

Fair use is more likely to apply if you:

  • can prove you have not deprived the owner of any income
  • copy a portion of out-of-print text or other work that no longer makes money from sold copies

Fair Use Examples

Keep in mind that every situation is different, so what may be permitted in one situation may not be acceptable in every situation. When in doubt, ask for permission.

Fair Use vs Copyright Infringement
May be Fair Use: May be Copyright Infringement:
Copying a few pages out of a textbook. Copying every chapter you need from the textbook.
Copying a chapter out of a large book. Copying an entire short story.
Copying a single article from a journal. Copying several articles from the same journal.
Photocopying a few pages of a book for a student. Photocopying a few pages of a book for the entire class.
Posting a link to information on Canvas. Copying and pasting information from another site to Canvas.
Showing a film in a face-to-face class. Uploading a film to your course site.

Copyright & Fair Use Resources

Copyright & Fair Use Websites

For more detailed information on copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons, check out the resources below.

Fair Use Evaluation Tools

It may be helpful to use evaluation tools when walking through the process of determining fair use.

Cerro Coso Resources

The Cerro Coso library has created a brief copyright handout for students and faculty. This is not comprehensive, but serves as an introduction.

Why Abide by Copyright Law?

  • It's the law - violating it could mean a costly lawsuit against you or Cerro Coso.
  • It helps creators keep control over their own works.
  • It helps creators retain credit and monetary benefits so they can continue to produce quality work.
  • It's the right thing to do.

Always ask yourself: "What would I want someone else to do if this were my work?"

What is Creative Commons?

Even if a work is still under copyright, an owner may allow it to be used in certain ways. Some owners mark their work "open access" or "open source" so that members of the public can use, copy, or even manipulate it into something new.

Creative Commons License Example

Creative Commons (CC) licensing is a simple and uniform way for authors to:

  • Grant certain permissions to use their work.
  • Determine how they want to limit a user's rights to use the content.

It offers free, flexible licenses in plain language so both creator and user understand what can and cannot be done with the material.

What do CC Icons Mean?

Creative Commons iconCreative Commons: The license is Creative Commons, rather than a simple copyright license.

CC Attribution iconAttribution: Give appropriate credit where due. If this icon appears alone, you can do whatever you want with the work as long as you credit the original creator. If it is combined with other icons, follow the stipulations identified in those icons.

CC Share Alike iconShare Alike: Works with this icon can be modified, but all modifications must carry the same license. If a work with this icon does not allow commercial use, anything you do with it must also be non-commercial.

CC No Derivatives iconNo Derivatives: This work cannot be modified. You can copy and redistribute this work in its entirety, but you cannot change it.

CC Non-Commercial iconNon-Commercial: This work cannot be used for commercial purposes. It can be modified for personal or public use, but it cannot be used in advertising or anything intended to make money.

CC Public Domain IconPublic Domain: This work is no longer restricted by copyright, usually due to age.

CC Zero Rights iconCC0: The creator has opted out of copyright and database protection, and declared "no rights reserved" on the work.

Getting Permission

If you want to use or copy an author's work and you don't think it will fall under fair use:

  • Find out who holds the copyright. This may be the author, but it might also be the publication company.
  • Contact the owner for permission. Include the extent and number of copies you want to make. Publishers are often easier to locate than authors, but they are also more likely to charge a fee for use.
  • If possible, get the permission in writing.