Understanding Copyright When Developing Quality Online Courses

by John Raible

“I was very happy to see all of these responses to this post. In my position, I am usually the ‘copyright police.’” -Sara McCool, Community of Practice Discussion


Faculty teaching online courses face the exciting prospect of designing, maintaining, and conducting courses in an ever-developing medium. While this medium opens new, unlimited opportunities, it also poses many questions about how to present materials to students within the legal parameters of copyright laws. Proper training and access to campus copyright resources will aid faculty in developing quality online courses.


Copyright law grants the copyright owner the exclusive rights to reproduce, create a derivative work, distribute, perform, and display the copyrighted material. In addition, the copyright owner can determine who is authorized to use the work. Copyright is automatic once the work is captured in a fixed format (e.g., text or recording). Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Addressing Copyright

There are several ways to address copyright throughout a faculty development program:

  • Create a “top ten” list of copyright questions and answers
    • Common questions can be collected and sent to appropriate campus resources (librarians, general counsel, etc.) to be answered.
    • This approach provides one authoritative source for answers to common questions.
  • Include appropriate campus copyright person(s) in faculty development
    • Provide opportunities for faculty to pose specific questions to authoritative sources.
    • Examples include: submitting a public question, utilizing individual or group discussions, or private questions through an individual assignment.
  • Determine if copyright permission is needed
    • Utilize the Fair Use 4 Factor test.
    • If permission is needed:
      • Create a Sample Letter faculty can use when asking for copyright permission for educational purposes
      • Use a copyright service such as the Copyright Clearance Center (fees apply)­­­­­­.
  • Promote resources with less restrictive copyright licenses
    • Public Domain
    • Government resources or documents
    • Creative Commons/Open Educational Resources
    • Library or institutional licensed content

Copyright of Faculty Intellectual Property

During faculty development, it is important to address the intellectual property rights of all faculty ranks. Link to resources available on campus such as a collective bargaining agreement or appropriate administrative office (e.g., faculty relations). This information will provide ownership clarity over the materials developed by the faculty and the institution.


Each institution has their own interpretation and policies governing copyright. Use campus resources whose primary responsibility is to address copyright. Including copyright campus resources during faculty development will encourage faculty to reach out directly whenever a copyright issues arise. This method will help promote a culture of copyright awareness.

Institutional Resources

General Resources

Sample Course

The TOPkit sample course has additional information regarding copyright and things to consider regarding copyright in the online environment.

Week 2 Content in the Online Environment

Copyright and Intellectual Property

Top Ten Copyright and Fair Use Questions