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Copyright Compliance: Copyright Basics

Information intended to encourage and support copyright compliance as faculty members design effective course readings, lectures, and other educational materials, whether for the physical classroom or an online teaching environment.


This guide provides legal information but does not constitute legal advice.

Copyright Basics: Resources

Copyright Workshops for Faculty - Simmons University, Office of the General Counsel. Covers issues about compliance and making fair use arguments for course readings and materials. April 2021

Copyright Basics - U.S. Copyright Office
Creative Commons Licenses -
Public Domain Chart - Peter B. Hirtle

But I always cite my sources! Isn't that enough?

It is important to note that protecting against plagiarism does not necessarily guard against copyright infringement.  When copying or otherwise using large portions of a copyrighted work, you still must determine whether a fair use argument can be made.  If not, you will need to get permission to use the work; simply attributing the source of the material is not sufficient.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a set of protections afforded to the author of an original work.  In the United States, copyright arises from Article I, §8 of the United States Constitution, which allows Congress "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  The specific laws governing copyright are found primarily in 17 U.S.C. §101ff., as well as court rulings that interpret this legislation.

Copyright and Pandemic Exigencies

Since the shift to online and remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries have been guided by a public statement issued by library copyright specialists in the United States and Canada on “Fair Use and Emergency Remote Teaching and Research.”  The Simmons University Library policy for digitization and dissemination of course material during the COVID-19 pandemic offers guidance for faculty.  

Copyright and Teaching

While using a copyrighted work without permission for educational purposes is often acceptable, educational use is no guarantee.  If you want to use the work of other authors in your teaching, whether it be in a physical classroom or in an online teaching environment, you may need permission from the copyright holder.  

To determine whether this is necessary, you should first determine whether the work is protected by copyright law.  If it is not, you may use it without permission.  If it is protected by copyright law, you may still be able to use the work without permission if you can make a fair use argument.  If the work is protected by copyright law and you cannot make a fair use argument, then you will need to seek permission.

You should consider copyright law whenever you are using someone else's work in your teaching, whether it be for a course reading, lecture content, or supplementary materials in the course management system.  Remember that in a digital age, using a work ("copying") can include, but is not limited to: photocopying; scanning (to print, to file, or to email); printing out; making a PDF; copying, downloading, or uploading a digital file; and converting analog format to digital format. The TEACH Act, 17 U.S.C. §110(2), outlines the requirements for online and distance teaching environments.

Linking to online content does not constitute making a copy, so you should favor links wherever possible.

When You Don't Need Permission

You do not need permission to use work in several cases:

  • If you are the copyright holder.  Please keep in mind that in the case of published works that you authored, you may NOT have retained copyright as a result of your agreement with the publisher.
  • If Simmons University is the copyright holder.  Works for hire, documents authored by Simmons University, and some documents held in the University Archives may fall in this category.
  • Works governed by a Creative Commons license may often be used without permission; the type of license will specify which uses are permitted.
  • If the material falls into the public domain.  Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright and may be used freely.  This may be because they were in the public domain at the time of creation (such as many government documents or material shared according to the CC0 Creative Commons license), or because their copyright term has expired.  To determine if a formerly copyright-protected document has entered the public domain, you may wish to consult this helpful chart by Peter Hirtle.
  • Open educational resources are purposely designed to relieve faculty of the responsibility to seek copyright permissions and may be used freely.

If none of the above cases applies, you still may be able to use the work in question if you can make a fair use argument.

When You Do Need Permission

If your usage does not meet the above criteria you may not use the work without permission. At this point your options include:

  • altering your use so it meets the criteria for fair use
  • finding a substitute, or
  • seeking permission to use the work in the intended manner.