Teaching and educational use

This page focuses on copyright issues in teaching, for instructors at the University of Minnesota. Instructors and teachers at other non-profit institutions in the United States may also find some of this information useful. 

Contact us with any questions, or to set up training.

Instructional use is one type of educational use

Instructors share a lot of different course materials with students. Most sharing with students involves some copyright issues, but the issues are often pretty similar, whether you are working online or in-person; with journal articles or with movies.

Educational uses such as symposia, poster sessions, and conference presentations don’t always line up exactly with course-based uses in terms of copyright issues, but there are many similarities. 

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The easiest option - don’t copy

Copyright issues with course materials usually come up because you're making copies. Handing out physical copies and uploading files to your course website are both activities that make copies. Both may be allowed sometimes under copyright law, but sometimes they need permission from copyright owners.

You can skip copyright concerns by not making copies when you share course materials: 

  • Link to online materials, instead of uploading files to a course site.
  • Work with the Libraries to link to subscriptions, or to get online multi-user access to ebooks and media for your course. Libraries staff members can also help you seek copyright permissions to make copies for students. 
  • Have students buy their own copies of materials, or watch or listen to video or audio on personal accounts. 
  • Watch, look at, or listen to things together from physical media during an in-person class.
  • Go old-school and put books or journal issues on reserve (physically) in the Libraries.
  • Share citations for the readings with the students. (Students can develop research skills in finding materials from citations; a specialist librarian may be able to come to your class to help.)

There’s a little more to know about even some of these easy options.

Linking is a good option for anything publicly available online, like news websites and online videos. But links can break, or content may be taken down from other locations. The reason linking is legally simple is because the other site is responsible for legal issues in hosting the content - but planning for backups is a good idea.

Linking to academic subscription content can be simple, with DOIs, PURLs, or other "permalink" options, all of which should work even for off-campus users. Some subscription content doesn’t have those, buut Libraries Course Reserves staff members can help with making links.

It's better not to link to existing content that looks obviously infringing itself - Joe Schmoe's YouTube video of the entire "Black Panther" movie is probably not a good thing to link to. But Sara Someone's 2-minute video of herself and her best friend talking over a few of the pivotal scenes may be fair use, and is not something you should worry about linking to.

Showing physical media (or media files that you own outright) in an in-person class is legally straightforward. Showing any streaming media (in-person or online), showing physical media during an online class, or making media clips to share with students - all of those are more legally complicated.

More information on image, video, and audio options.

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Another simple option - permission

Sometimes, your course or other educational use just has to involve making copies, and fair use doesn't seem to apply to the copying. Then, you may need permission to make the copies. (Or you may choose to find alternative course materials.)

We can help you get permission to share materials for University of Minnesota courses. There is usually a fee involved for the students.

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Fair use for course materials

If none of the easier options above work for you, you may still be able to share course materials with students by exercising your own judgment as to whether the sharing may be permitted by law, or whether you will need permission from (and usually payment to) the copyright holder.

Fair use allows some copying without permission, in support of socially beneficial things like criticism and commentary, news reporting, scholarship, and education. In fact, the statutory definition of fair use highlights classroom copying, stating that it includes "multiple copies for classroom use." (17 USC § 107.)

The same basic elements of fair use apply to all kinds of uses - by teachers, artists, researchers, reporters, and so on. If you are not already familiar with the basic four factors of fair use, you should start there.

Fair use highlights for educational use:

  • Less is more - Fair use is most likely to apply to using relatively small portions of works, and when the portion used is key to a specific pedagogical purpose. So it may be acceptable to upload a film clip for students to watch in preparation for a class discussion of that clip, but uploading longer parts of a film would be less likely to be fair use. Similarly, sharing a small portion of a book as a PDF might be acceptable, but it would rarely be fair use to upload an entire book.
  • Online isn't special - Putting materials for students online is not very different from making paper copies for students - online copies are no more or less likely to be fair use than offline ones. Sometimes, information about copying suggests you are responsible for what students do with digital files you give them, but that's not how the law really works.
  • Passwords aren't magic, but they're useful - Posting things to a password-protected course website doesn’t directly affect whether the copying fits inside of fair use or not. But help with the "market harm" factor - when you limit access to enrolled students, you know exactly how many people would have access to your copies, and that limits how much potential market harm there could be.
  • Fair use may help in emergencies - In the spring of 2020, when many US instructors were rapidly shifting their courses online, a group of copyright experts in higher education (including the UMN Libraries Copyright Program Librarian, Nancy Sims) put out a public statement that suggested fair use might be more expansive and/or flexible under the time pressures and public health pressures of that pressing moment. This was (and remains) an advocacy position with which some could disagree, but it attracted significant endorsement from library folks, administrators, and legal scholars. It also lined up with the practices of many educational content vendors: in the spring, many of them made some of their resources available online for free, but most ended those programs as time pressures eased and new forms of online access evolved. Thankfully public health pressures in the United States have eased and more “normal” access mechanisms are in place. Fair use may still sometimes be applicable in unusual or time-sensitive educational-access situations
  • Sometimes you're supposed to pay! - Fair use does not cover all copying, and in particular it may not cover copying when a paid alternative exists. If you want students to have their own copies of a book, they may need to buy the book. If you want them to watch a movie, they may need to pay to view it via an online streaming service. The Libraries can help you explore options to reduce costs such as purchasing institutional copies of ebooks or streaming video, but this isn't always an option.

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Ownership of course materials

The University of Minnesota's Copyright Ownership Policy affirms that faculty members and faculty-like employees own the copyright in their academic works, including instructional content. Some units and departments have different policies around ownership of course video at the unit level, but you would likely already be aware of that if it is applicable. Some units may also have some shared expectations of shared access to course materials for continuity of educational experiences, without those expectations affecting the ownership of the materials.

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Ownership and sharing of student works

Students own the copyright in their course assignments at the University of Minnesota. This is true both as a general matter of law and of University policy. Instructors can require students to share works in certain ways, but should include those requirements in the course syllabus.

Ideally, instructors should always provide an option other than public sharing. Students should not have to make a special request to have privacy in their class work. If an instructor does require all students to share publicly, including that requirement in the syllabus allows students to discuss alternate options with the instructor early on, or opt out of the course.

If an instructor does not make sharing expectations clear up front, the instructor usually does not have the right to then make new decisions about sharing without additional permission from students. It is always a good idea for instructors to model the respect for authors and creators that they expect from their students.

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Instructors’ rights and responsibilities

Under University of Minnesota policies, most instructors own the copyrights in their instructional works. Instructors are also responsible for their own choices in course readings and other instructional content - including the decision to rely on fair use when using particular materials in a course context.

UMN takes this approach because it supports instructors' intellectual freedom in instructional contexts.

We also take this approach because instructors know how they plan to use any materials in their course better than anyone else. Instructors are best able to answer important questions for fair use, such as the amount of the original being used, its centrality to the original work, and most importantly, the pedagogical purpose in using the material.

Some people find the idea of making a fair use determination intimidating or frustrating - or they are concerned about the possibility of getting sued about the materials they use in their teaching. 

With a bit of practice, fair use is not impossible to understand. Some informational campaigns about fair use intentionally sow uncertainty and doubt, but learning the basics of fair use is well within the capacity of most teens and adults.

Fair use is central to the functioning of this and other Universities. Instructors making informed and reasonable choices about fair use in their teaching will have the full support of the University in the unlikely event that any legal issues arise. 

Instructors who have questions should contact copyinfo@umn.edu. We also offer training to groups on request.

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Platform limitations

Using central university systems such as Canvas has some advantages - materials posted there are less public, and better-integrated with other campus systems. University systems meet minimum standards for legal requirements like accessibility and student privacy. If a legal complaint is made about content on university systems, the university can act to protect educational uses. 

Instructors use other online platforms for functions that aren’t available on university systems. Outside systems may not meet basic legal requirements. They also usually have their own policies and practices about what they host and when they'll take it down. These policies are usually related to what is legally allowed, but because the platforms also have private business deals with content providers, sometimes details can be a little opaque. 

Confusingly, some of the Google Suite tools associated with University of Minnesota accounts are more like centralized resources, where control over legal issues sits with the University (email at least). But some are more like other online platforms, where control over legal issues sits with Google. YouTube is in the second category - content posted to your University of Minnesota account on YouTube may be taken down in accordance with standard YouTube policies and practices (including some opaque ones). Kaltura can be a better option than YouTube for course video. 

If you are using YouTube, or any external online platforms as the main host of your course videos, or as the main option for students to submit assignments, content may disappear unpredictably. Platforms may remove or take down content, even when fair use or another legal exception applies. It's always good to have a backup option planned.

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