Posting Course Materials Online
Using a course website or a university-supported Course Management System (CMS), such as CourseWorks, to make instructional materials available to students can raise many copyright issues. These systems can be used to provide a wide range of materials, from articles and book chapters to sound recordings and visual images. However, such materials may be posted and shared only in a manner consistent with copyright law, which gives legal protection to nearly all text, images, audiovisual recordings, and other materials, whether available on the Internet or in any other medium.
Instructional materials may be posted to a CMS or a course website under any of the following circumstances, as detailed more fully below.
- The instructor is the copyright owner of the material, or
- The material is made available by linking rather than copying, or
- The copyright owner of the material grants permission, or
- The material is in the public domain, or
- The use is within “fair use” under the law, or
- The use is within another statutory exception.
Keep in mind that some of these copyright issues may be avoided or simplified by selecting an alternative method for making the materials available to students. Some of these alternatives include using printed coursepacks, ordering materials through the bookstore, or placing the materials on reserve. These alternatives are set forth more fully below.
Permissible Uses on CMS and Websites
Naturally, you may post materials to which you hold the legal rights. In general, you are the copyright owner of scholarly and instructional materials that you created independently, unless you have assigned the copyright to another party. Faculty authors of journal articles and other materials frequently assign their copyrights to publishers under the terms of a publication agreement. Read these contracts carefully to determine who may be the copyright owner of your own work. For more information about publication agreements and the importance of retaining rights to use your own materials, consult the Copyright Ownership section of this website.
Simply linking to materials that are already lawfully available on the Internet or in databases is often feasible, efficient, and legally sound, without raising significant copyright questions. Columbia University Libraries provides access to numerous full-text databases, and librarians often have negotiated licenses that permit linking, printing, and other necessary uses in the educational setting. University librarians can help you locate materials and make links.
Permission from the copyright owner is an important option for posting materials to CMS or a website. Instructors are ordinarily responsible for securing any needed permission. See the Permissions section for guidance and forms. Permission can also come in many other forms. Works that are made Open Access or Open Source by the rightsholder are at least available for researchers, students, and anyone else to access and read without further permission. Many works are made available on the Internet and elsewhere with a statement of permitted use or with a Creative Commons license. These possibilities are effectively an advance permission from the copyright owner, often permitting non-commercial uses of the works. Read the language carefully, and if it covers your needs, you are free to proceed with the use.
Copyrights in many early works have expired, leaving them without restrictions on copying, uploading, and many other uses. Most notably, works published in the U.S. before 1923 are in the public domain. Copyrights to more recent works may also have expired, but the law requires individual scrutiny of each work. In addition, broad categories of works, such as works originally created by the U.S. federal government, have no copyright protection. For further information and resources, consult Duration and the Public Domain.
Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the public to make limited uses of copyrighted works without permission. Fair use plays a key role in the online world, but it may not be what you expect. Simple, clean, and concise rules do not exist in the law of fair use. Do not assume that a particular use is inherently within fair use just because it is for nonprofit and educational purposes, or because you cited the source of the work or restricted access to the materials to students in the class. On the other hand, limiting the amount of material you post on your website and restricting access to the material are important ways of strengthening your claim of fair use. For further information on fair use at the university, consult the Fair Use section of this website.
Fair use depends on a balancing of four factors outlined in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Listed below with each factor are some suggestions that may be helpful in conducting fair use analyses, particularly in the context of posting to a CMS or a course website. Because each situation will be different, you must also consider other possibilities and weigh them in the balance for each fair use determination. However, you do not necessarily need to take every possible precaution and satisfy all four of the statutory factors; some adjusting of the implementation of the following procedure may still keep your activities within the boundaries of permitted use. For scenarios applying the fair use factors to specific materials, see Scenarios.
To establish the strongest basis for fair use, consider and apply the four factors along the lines of the following suggestions. Remember, fair use involves a balancing of the factors and the “fairness” of the overall circumstances. In other words, you do not always need to comply with all of the suggestions listed here, but a strong case for fair use may likely have taken most or all of these variables into consideration. Use the Fair Use Checklist to see additional variables and to created a helpful record of your evaluation of the law.
Purpose of the Use
- Materials should be placed online only for the purpose of serving the needs of specified educational programs.
- Materials should be placed online only at the specific request of the instructor.
- Access to materials should be limited by password or other means to deter unauthorized access beyond students enrolled in the specific course for which the materials are needed.
- Students should not be charged a fee specifically or directly for access to materials placed online, and no person or unit at the university should benefit monetarily from the use of the material.
Nature of the Original Work
- The selected work should be relevant to the educational objectives of the course.
- The law of fair use applies more narrowly to highly creative works; accordingly, avoid substantial excerpts from novels, short stories, poetry, modern art images, and other such materials.
- Instructors should carefully review uses of “consumable” materials such as test forms and workbook pages that are meant to be used and repurchased.
Amount of the Work Used
- Materials placed online should generally be limited to brief works or brief excerpts from longer works. Common examples: a single chapter from a book, a single article from a journal, or individual news articles.
- The amount of the work placed online should be related directly to the educational objectives of the course.
Effect of the Use on the Market for the Original
- Materials placed online should include a citation to the original source of publication and a form of a copyright notice. If the original work has a copyright notice (e.g., “Copyright 2009, Jane Smith”), copying that notice with the materials is probably a good idea. The instructor should also advise students that the materials are made available exclusively for use by students enrolled in the course and must not be distributed beyond that limited group.
- Access to materials should be limited by password or other means to deter unauthorized access beyond students enrolled in the specific course for which the materials are needed. (Password control or other limited access is also important to the “purpose” factor, as noted above.)
- The CMS or a course website should include only material for which the instructor, the library, or another unit of the educational institution possesses a lawfully obtained copy.
- Materials placed online should not include works that are reasonably available and affordable for students to purchase—whether as a book, as a coursepack, or in other format.
The U.S. Copyright Act includes a variety of statutory exceptions, in addition to fair use, that may be helpful for the use of copyrighted materials at the university. For a summary of the provisions, visit Other Rights of Use.
- Using Traditional Coursepacks: Consider using coursepacks if permission to post materials electronically is denied by the copyright owner but permission is available for creating hardcopies of the same materials.
- Requiring Students to Purchase Materials: Encourage students to purchase materials if available at reasonable cost, especially when assigning substantial reading. Simple purchases seldom raise copyright issues, especially if the materials are ordered through the bookstore, online, or through other ordinary means.
- Using an Electronic Reserve System: Columbia University Libraries offers print and reserve services, and the library staff will review and address the related copyright issues. Read more information about reserve services at Columbia University.
Most recent revision: 032213
When making use of this page under the terms of the CC license, please include this form of attribution: "Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director." If your needs for the material are outside the scope of the license, please consider fair use or simply asking us for permission.