The basics

Imagine these situations: 

  • You have a brief movie clip that you’d like to use in your class as a way to illustrate a concept.
  • You found an image online that does a great job of illustrating the cycle of poverty and you’d like to include it in your lecture slides.
  • You have an article that you’d like to share with your class. Typically, you would upload a PDF to Canvas for your students.

These are just a few ways that third-party content (content that was created by someone other than you) is typically used in courses. When using these types of content, especially in online courses, you should think about whether or not your use is allowed under copyright law.

Copyright law restricts how you can use third-party content in online courses more than in face-to-face courses. It is important to consider copyright law in online course creation; if third-party content is used in a way that does not comply with copyright law, it could be taken down (disrupting the course), the unit could be forced to pay for the use, or U-M could possibly be sued.

Third-party content

Faculty members are in a great position to help avoid these risks by asking the following five questions for each piece of third-party content they consider using in their course:

  1. Are there contractual terms, terms of service, or terms of use that limit my use?
  2. Is the third-party content uncopyrightable or in the public domain?
  3. Is the third-party content already licensed for my use?
  4. Is my use of the third party content a fair use?
  5. Can I ask for permission to use the third party content?
1. Are there contractual terms, terms of service, or terms of use that limit my use?

Before using any piece of content you found online, you should inform yourself of any contractual terms that might affect the use you want to make (e.g., the terms of service). By accessing most websites, you’re agreeing to abide by the terms of service, even if you haven’t read them or were unaware they existed. Ultimately, it is for you to decide whether to follow the terms you’ve agreed to or try to negotiate a different set of contractual terms. If you ignore contractual terms, remember that there may be legal consequences; reach out to the Office of General Counsel if you have any questions.

If the answer to this question is yes, move to question five. If the answer to this question is no, move to question 2.

2. Is the third-party content uncopyrightable or in the public domain?

Copyright does not protect everything. Some things are fundamentally not copyrightable. For instance, copyright does not protect any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. To be protected by copyright, the work needs to embody some spark of creativity and not be purely factual. Works that are not protected by copyright can be used without any restrictions.

This is especially important when you want to use third-party content like charts and graphs in your course. If the chart is not copyrightable, it can be used freely because there are no copyright restrictions. Examples of non-copyrightable charts and graphs are available in the OpenMichigan Casebook.

Some third-party content is no longer protected by copyright, either because the copyright term has expired or because the copyright holder has dedicated the work to the public domain. All works published in the US more than 95 years ago are in the public domain. Works published before 1989 could also be in the public domain for not following formalities that were required at the time. Consult Cornell’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the US chart to see if the third party content you want to use might fall into this category of works.

If the third-party content is uncopyrightable or in the public domain, stop here; you can freely use that content. If not, move to question three.

3. Is the third party content already licensed for my use?

Your use of a copyrighted work might be covered by a pre-existing license. The most common type of public license is a Creative Commons (CC) license. CC licenses are blanket licenses that give everyone the ability to use the content as long as they follow the rules outlined by the copyright holder. All CC licenses require attribution. More details can be found in AI’s How To: Attributions guide.

There are also online resources that the U-M library has already purchased. If your online course is for registered U-M students only, you can take advantage of these resources in your online course by providing students with the link to the resource (commonly, ebooks and journal articles, but also some other types of media) in the library’s catalog. This will authenticate the student and allow them to view the resource.

For more information about what library resources may be available for your course, contact your subject specialist librarian.

If the third-party content is already licensed for your use, stop here; you can freely use the content as long as you follow the scope of the license. If the third-party content is not already licensed, or if you’d like to use it outside the scope of the license, move to question four.

4. Is my use of third-party content a fair use?

There might be some third-party content you want to use that is protected by copyright and isn’t already licensed. If there is no adequate replacement and the third-party content is crucial to the course, you should consider whether the use is a fair use. If the use is a fair use, the third-party content can be included in the course without permission.

Fair use is a user’s right that encourages certain favored uses (like criticism, commentary, and education) without the permission of the copyright holder. Fair use is context specific; there are no brightline rules here. For example, it’s a widely believed myth that 10% of a work can be used under fair use. This is not always true. Sometimes, using 10% of a work is not a fair use. Sometimes, using 100% of a work is a fair use. It is very dependent on the specific use you are making.

For each fair use analysis, consider the following four factors:

  • the purpose of the use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount used; and
  • the effect on the market

For more information about fair use and some helpful guidance on how to apply the fair use analysis, consult the Library Copyright Office’s Fair Use page.

If your use of the third-party content is a fair use, stop here. If not, move to question five.

5. Can I ask for permission to use the third party content?

If the third-party content is copyrightable, not already licensed, and your use would not be a fair use, you should ask the copyright holder for permission to include the content in your course. Third-party content can be used in any way if the copyright holder gives you permission to make those uses. When asking for permission, make sure to be clear about how the material will be used, how many people will view it, and how long the content will be used. This will help the copyright holder make an informed decision on whether or not they want to allow the use and how much they want to charge for it (if at all). Although not legally required, it is a good idea to get the permission and terms in writing and save the writing for future reference.

The Library Copyright Office has a Sample Permission Letter that can easily be adapted to fit the needs of your specific course. More information about requesting copyright permission can be found in the Obtaining Copyright Permissions research guide.

If you cannot ask for permission to use the work of if the copyright holder says no, you should not include the work in your course. Instead, try looking for a replacement that’s available under an open license. CAI’s guide on Finding Usable Materials is a helpful place to start.

Practical tips

The copyright team at CAI is available if you have questions or would like to learn more about how copyright affects what you use in your course. They can be contacted at [email protected].


Finding Open Educational Resources (OER)

How this will help:

  • Identify the benefits to using open educational resources.
  • Locate available open resources that can be used in a course.

The basics

The cost of textbooks and other course materials can be a major barrier for students who cannot afford required or supplemental resources. Luckily, as the online world grows more vast, open educational resources become increasingly available.

What are open educational resources?

Open educational resources (OER) are openly licensed texts or other digital works that are meant to be used in an educational setting. OER include a wide range of materials such as textbooks, videos, and even full courses. OER are openly licensed, meaning their authors allow others to utilize and repurpose the materials without needing to ask for permission. This is in contrast to non-openly licensed materials, which can only be used under a user’s right, like fair use, or with permission from the copyright holder.

Why use them?

There are many benefits to using OER. Many instructors use OER to replace traditional textbooks as a way to help mitigate costs for students. The hope is that more students will be able to acquire and engage with open readings regardless of financial status. Beyond price, OER can reduce time of content development. By using an OER, you can focus important development time on materials specific to your course, rather than creating new content. In these ways, using OER ensures all students have access to your course content on day one. You can even find OER lesson plans, curricula, or other activities to supplement your course content if you’re unable to fully move to an OER textbook. OER helps keep courses up to date, diverse, and adaptable for today’s higher education needs.

Is it really free?

Yes! OER are specifically designed to increase access to content. There has been a major push for collaborative teaching and open resource practices, resulting in an abundance of free materials co-created and shared for educational purposes. However, it is very important to remember that just because something is online for “free,” it is not automatically an OER. You should look for an open license (like a Creative Commons license) on the work. Typical license terms include an attribution requirement, a limit to non-commercial uses only, and restrictions on how the work can be changed. You are required to follow the terms of the license, so read it closely.

Identifying OER

How can I tell if something is an OER?

Simply check the resource’s license to ensure it is labeled for reuse. Most OER use Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons licenses are an easy way for creators to tell other people how they can use their content. The licenses come in a variety of types that allow the creator to pick the license that best suits their needs. Keep an eye out for phrases such as ‘public domain’, ‘Creative Commons’, and ‘open access’ or their representation by their logos.

How do I find OER?

OER can be found just about anywhere on the Internet. The Center for Academic Innovation has a very helpful guide on Finding Usable Materials that can help you find a variety of open content.

How do I label my own content as an OER?

We encourage faculty to consider making their content open for others to reuse. If you have content you would like to allow other people to reuse, include a Creative Commons license on your materials. You can specify what kind of license you want to apply to any resource you create. For example, if you do not want your resource to be used by others for commercial purposes, you can apply a CC BY-NC (noncommercial) license.
Keep in mind that you can only legally apply a license to material when you hold the copyright. You cannot apply a license to someone else’s work without their explicit permission.

Practical tips

The CAI Copyright Team is available if you have questions or would like to learn more about how to find OERs. They can be contacted at [email protected].

Quick search tips: some tips for finding popular media types

YouTube Videos:

  • Click “Filter” on your YouTube search and under “Features” select “Creative Commons”.

Google Images:

  • Search for the material you want
  • Click “Tools”
  • Under “Usage Rights” select “labeled for reuse” in the drop down menu; your search will then show only openly licensed images



Sparks, S. (2017, April 12). Open educational resources (OER): Overview and definition. Education Week. Retrieved March 2, 2020 from