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Copyright Reference Guide For Educators

Use of Copyrighted Content in Online Teaching

Copyright law treats digital and non-digital copyright-protected works in a similar manner. However, use of copyrighted content in online learning settings is treated differently. 

Before the passing of the TEACH act in 2002, copyright law did not allow the display and performance of copyrighted content in online environments. The TEACH Act enables performance or display of copyrighted works in distance online education settings by accredited, non-profit educational institutions that meet the Act’s requirements. For information about what the Teach Act allows and it’s requirements please read Copyright Basics: The TEACH Act. SMCCD is in the process of developing processes to satisfy TEACH Act requirements. Until those requirements are met, SMCCD faculty may not display or stream or transmit copyrighted works in online teaching environments. 


Copyright for Online Teachers (video)

Providing Access to Copyrighted Content in Online Education (including Hybrid)

Sometimes, Course Management Systems (CMS) vendors such as Canvas offer publisher-created content with their systems including readings and course syllabi for which they have obtained all necessary copyright permissions. This vendor-provided content can be used by instructors without seeking copyright permissions. When uploading and providing access to content other than such vendor-provided content, instructors must seek permission from the copyright holder even if the content is password-protected. If permission is needed to reproduce content in paper format for distribution to multiple students, then permission is also needed to use the same content in an electronic/digital format which is being made available to multiple students. For more information, please see Copyright Clearance Center’s Using Content:Course Management Systems

Below are some guidelines for ensuring legal and/or fair use of copyrighted content in online teaching. Irrespective of the format of copyrighted content being used, faculty members should make sure that they:

  • Link to content (rather than up/downloading copies) whenever possible as that is generally not considered violation of copyright unless the content itself contains infringing materials

  • Limit the amount of copyrighted content used. Use of more than a brief excerpt from content on digital networks is unlikely to be transformative and therefore unlikely to be a fair use.

  • Limit access to the content to students enrolled in the course.

  • Notify students that the content is being made available for teaching, study, and research only.

  • Place the content in the context of the course, explaining why they were chosen and what they are intended to illustrate. Recontextualize and transform the original purpose of the content when appropriate through the addition of study questions, commentary, criticism, annotation, and student reactions.

  • Provide attributions to the known copyright-owners of the content

  • Use content that serves a pedagogical purpose and is not used for aesthetic and/or entertainment purposes.


Textual Materials

  • Link to the texts if possible rather than uploading the text in downloadable formats (for e.g. PDF, DOC, ODT). 

  • Avoid copying materials created and marketed primarily for use in courses (e.g. a textbook, workbook, lab manuals, standardized tests or anthologies). 


  • Link to images if possible rather than making them available in downloadable formats (e.g. JPEG, PNG, TIFF,PDF, etc).

  • If copying an image, use the lowest image resolution possible to achieve your purpose.

  • Avoid copying images from materials created and marketed primarily for use in courses (e.g. supersite, digital course packages, etc.). 


  • Link to the video if possible rather than making it available in downloadable formats (e.g. MOV, MP4, WMV, FLV, etc).

  • Avoid copying videos from materials created and marketed primarily for use in courses (e.g. supersite, digital course packages, textbook accompanying materials such as DVDs, etc.). 

Sound recording

  • Link to the sound recording if possible rather than making it available in downloadable formats (e.g. MP4A, MP3, WAV, etc).

  • Avoid copying sound recordings from materials created and marketed primarily for use in courses such as the one at hand (supersite, digital course packages, textbook accompanying materials such as CDs, etc.). 


Linking to Copyright Content Freely Available on the Web

Sharing a link to online resources with students via email, on paper, or within a learning management system such as Canvas is generally permissible if the following conditions apply:

  • Resources are freely available to the general public 

  • Resources are in the public domain 

  • Resources are published under Creative Commons or Open Access licenses and attribution requirements stipulated in licenses are fulfilled  

  • Resources accessible via the college’s institutional subscriptions 

Limitation: Links to online media may not be shared if the resource, even if freely available on the web, obviously contains infringing material.

Streaming AudioVisual Content

  • Faculty may not stream content from their personal Netflix, Amazon Instant Videos, Spotify or other such subscription services whose Terms of Service allow for personal use only.

  • Faculty may stream audiovisual content in an online environment when the use is integral to the course and directly related to instructional goals in the following circumstances:

  • Work is in the public domain

  • Copyright holder has given permission

  • Instructor is the copyright holder

  • There is a public performance or a streaming license associated with the work

  • Online license terms and conditions allow for the use and the material has been lawfully made and lawfully made publicly available

  • Use of short excerpts that could reasonably fall within fair use