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Copyright and Online Courses

Copyright and fair use are important factors to keep in mind when selecting course materials. While these issues can be quite complex, there are numerous resources available to help you navigate them and make the best choices in course materials.


Published resources– such as books, journal or news articles, films, audio recordings, etc.– are a vital part of any course. However, majority of these works are protected by copyright, and permission must be obtained before they can be used in a course. In order to obtain permission, faculty must submit one request per work to the library for review. You can learn more about how different requests work on the Request Readings for Online Courses page.

When you request to have an item placed on Course Reserves, the eReserves team at the Northwestern Library will review the request for copyright compliance. They will find out if the work is available for use and link it to the Course Reserves shelf associated with your course. If there are any issues with the copyright, you will be notified, and the library staff will work with you to find a way to use the work in question (perhaps a smaller portion) or help you find a replacement work that can be used. If you have specific questions about copyright and fair use, you can contact Kurt Munson, Reserve Services Librarian, or Tracy Coyne, Distance Learning Librarian.

Online Resources

The Internet has made countless resources readily available to users. But just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean it is free to use in a course site. Images, news articles, and PDFs can all be very easily placed into a course site without consideration for copyright. Unless there is an express statement attached indicating that the item is free to use, assume that it is protected by some kind of copyright– and thus may need approval before it can be used.

Online Images

It has become very easy to find images online– Google Image search will present you with images for many search terms. However, just because it can be found online doesn’t mean that it can be freely used in your course site. This blog post and included infographic on the legalities and ethics of using images found online can help guide you in respecting the rights of the image creators.

The Visual Resources Association (VRA) has also put together a set of comprehensive guidelines on the fair use of images in their Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study . Their key recommendations for educators using images for teaching purposes are:

  • Notify users that they are accessing copyrighted material.
  • Provide attributions to creators/copyright holders.
  • Keep images in the educational, not-for-profit context (i.e., make sure the images are housed in a Canvas course site rather than on a teacher’s personal website).

Articles & PDFs

While news articles, blog posts, and corporate reports can often be easily copied or downloaded as PDFs, this ease of duplication does not grant permission to reprint or reuse. Even if something is freely available online (i.e., not behind a paywall or password), it is still protected by copyright and usually cannot legally be reproduced in full. For items that are not behind a paywall or password, the recommended practice is to provide a link that students can access.

If an item does require a subscription, a request for the item will need to be submitted to the eReserves team. The Northwestern library has subscriptions to a number of publications; however, some popular publications do not easily provide university-wide access. Thus, for articles behind a paywall, other solutions and other ways of sharing the relevant information will need to be discussed. One potential way of sharing the information with students is to summarize the article, using key quotes within the summary.

Additional Resources

There are a number of options that faculty can take to avoid copyright infringement, or to make the process of getting permission go more smoothly.

  • Do It Yourself: Creating materials yourself will avoid any copyright claims. Of course, if you are referencing ideas or concepts created by someone else, these will need to be appropriately cited to avoid issues of plagiarism.
  • Public Domain Works: There are certain classes of works that are considered public domain and are thus not subject to copyright protection. This includes works that never had a copyright or that have an expired copyright; works created by federal government; and facts, formulas, and scientific theories.
  • Open Access Resources: While open access resources are still copyrighted, the copyright holder has chosen to freely share the work. This includes Creative Commons licenses, which often request attribution when shared. Other sources for open access materials include, a collection “of free and open online teaching, learning, and faculty development services” and, the Directory of Open Access Journals.
  • Commercial Textbooks:
    • Pros: Locating a single textbook tends to be less labor-intensive than tracking down a collection of journal articles or book chapters. And textbooks often include supplementary materials that can be distributed in class.
    • Cons: Textbooks tend to be very expensive. Students must purchase the textbooks in order to have access to many of the supplemental materials, and sometimes, they will need to purchase the supplemental materials as well.
    • Library Resources: Works held in library collections can be used, so long as they are used in a way that is consistent with institutional policies, licensing agreements, and applicable laws. The Course Reserves team at the Northwestern library can help faculty navigate these requirements.