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Fair Use and Copyright for Online Education

Presents copyright concerns regarding online instruction and offers guidance in applying fair use when appropriate.

Use resources with open licenses

There is a growing movement in education to create and use educational materials that are openly available to everyone. These resources are free to access and in most cases free to reuse, modify, and redistribute. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines these Open educational resources (OER) as "teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge."

Using OERs in your courses keeps instructional materials affordable for students, promotes a culture of collaboration and sharing, and eliminates concerns about applying fair use to avoid potential copyright violations.

Each of the example pages in this guide contain links to sites that can help you identify material that is freely available with open licenses.

For more information on the OER movement and open licensing, see the links below.

Use resources in the public domain

Works that are not subject to copyright are in the public domain. Public domain works are freely available for use without restriction.

A copyrighted work enters the public domain when the term of copyright protection expires or when its creator chooses to place the work in the public domain (as often indicated by the CC0 license from Creative Commons).

Determining the public domain status of a particular work can be very complicated, but as a general rule of thumb, works published in the United States before 1925 are in the public domain.

For more information, please see these resources:

Use library-licensed resources

The URI University Libraries purchase and subscribe to electronic resources including online journals, e-books, reference databases, and an image database. These resources are governed by license agreements, most of which allow the licensed material to be used for educational purposes by "authorized users." Authorized users are typically defined as URI students, faculty, staff, and researchers and walk-in users of the library. 

Most license agreements allow authorized users to:

  • Download, print, and save single copies of items for their personal use
  • Incorporate links to items in electronic coursepacks, reserves and course management systems, and instructor websites
  • Provide single print or electronic copies of individual items to other authorized users for noncommercial educational purposes (including to each student in a class at URI)
  • Provide single print or electronic copies of individual items to third-party colleagues for scholarly, educational, or research use

Using library-licensed resources for online courses avoids the need to perform fair use analyses or to seek permission from rightholders.

When using library-licensed resources, be sure to:

  • Use the link to the resource provided in URI Libraries Search, located below. This will ensure that students who are off-campus can access the material.
  • Use the materials for courses offered through the University of Rhode Island only.

If you have any questions about licensing terms for a particular resource, please contact Prof. Andrée Rathemacher, Head, Acquisitions. 

Seek permission from the rightsholder

If you want to use third-party copyrighted material for online instruction, you believe that your intended use does not qualify as fair use, and you have determined that the University of Rhode Island does not already have a license to use this material for your purpose, then you may seek permission from the rights holder. There is often a fee involved.

In some cases, you may need to research who owns the copyright and make a request to that person or entity directly. In other cases, you may be able to license use of the work through a collective rights agency.

The resources below provide detailed instructions on obtaining permissions for different types of media.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.