Copyright and Fair Use

This section will focus on the different types of copyrights and requirements for OER courses.

Copyright Protection

Copyright law is intended to protect creators and their intellectual property. The first copyright law went into effect over 200 years ago in the Copyright Act of 1790. This original law protected work for 14 years + an optional additional 14 years if the copyright was renewed. While the laws have been changed and updated over the years, the principle still remains the same.

These laws vary across geographic boundaries and can be quite complex. As times have changed and publication exponentially increased, the laws have shifted along with the impact on creators and consumers. In academia especially, this has created a boon for publishers who know that students are required to buy textbooks for each course at millions of institutions around the world. While it’s an honor to publish a text purchased and read by so many people, the creators are often on the losing side of this equation, receiving only a tiny share of the sales for their work. Students are also at a major disadvantage as they’re routinely responsible for purchasing new texts, often with few or hardly any changes from past editions.

With the advent of so many online materials, it’s easy to quickly search, download and print text, or photocopy a chapter from a book to distribute to students without paying much attention to finer details of copyright law. However, instructors should consider what texts and materials they have and will use, and the copyrights that apply to each. These distinctions range from the most stringent, and perhaps simple, with Traditional Copyright, to the free usage of work in the Public Domain.

Traditional Copyright

Traditional Copyright means that work cannot be used, adapted, copied, or published without the creator’s permission. All original work is protected under copyright when it is created. Though this law has often been bent or broken, particularly on campuses where instructors copy and distribute materials for “educational purposes” and do not receive direct income from the sale of these products, this practice is problematic. Without permission from the publisher or creator (depending upon their legal rights to the content), this duplication is copyright infringement.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding free, creative content on the web. “‘[T]he Commons’ — the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.” ( Creative Commons helps creators to protect their intellectual property for free, and enables them to choose how they would like their work to be used, without requiring consumers to purchase or receive individual permission.

Creative Commons licensing means that a work may be used without the creator’s permission, depending upon specific usage rules. Creators who upload materials are responsible for selecting the appropriate licenses for their work.

There are several types of Creative Commons licenses that detail the extent of duplication, adaption, and even sale, of licensed material. There are four major categories to consider that primarily deal with attribution, financial gain, and adaptation.

By (BY)
Author must always be attributed.

Non-Commercial (NC)
Material may be used, but not resold for financial gain.

No Derivatives (ND)
Can be used and shared, but only in the exact original form

Share Alike (SA)
Can be adapted, but must maintain CC license

Combinations of these parameters create the 6 general license types listed below.

CC/Attribute Author

CC/Attribute/Share/Change/Keep Same License

CC/Attribute/Share/No Changes


CC/Attribute/Share/Change/Non-Commercial/Keep Same License

CC/Attribute/Share/Non-Commercial/No Changes

Public Domain

Public Domain (PD) means that work can be used, adapted, copied, and published without the creator’s permission. This generally does not include works still “under license” or for use “with permission” (see Wiki).

This pertains to works published 95 years or more ago, or those already included in the Public Domain, without “exclusive intellectual property rights… The works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, and most early silent films… having been created before copyright existed… or expired. Some works are not covered by copyright… the formulae of Newtonian physics, cooking recipes, and all computer software created prior to 1974.”(Public Domain Wiki)

Using Creative Commons Licenses

The Creative Commons is part of a global network of affiliates and “chapters” in different regions and institutions around the world. They have partnerships with media platforms like bandcamp, Vimeo, YouTube, and Flickr to provide their users with protection rights. CC receives funding from many sources, including organizations like the Rockefeller and MacArthur Foundations, the Center for the Public Domain, and general public interested in contributing to their efforts to increase equity, collaboration, and creativity in a free digital landscape.

CC Licenses are no-cost, easy to use and obtain, simply visit their website, or search for “Creative Common icons”. Their “Downloads” page enables you to download high resolution images of their various license buttons, that you save, cut and paste onto the various document(s)/work(s) you intend to upload. You may also affix these to your personal website.

No membership fee, sign-up is required, however, CC does have a policy for usage, primarily protecting their trademarked logos and icons, which may not be altered their icons/logo buttons in any way, or printed on merchandise for sale. You may request permission from the organization for additional permission, including merchandising rights. Detailed rules can be found on their website.

In addition to displaying the icons on the materials that you’d like to protect, creators must link their work to their appropriate license. When specifying the type, the full license name must be spelled out:

  • “Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike United States License 3.0”
  • Hyperlink text to CC license webpage
  • Use hyphens to connect various types of licenses

Using Creative Commons Materials

Like using the advanced search tool on Google to find content that enables users to legally repost or repurpose content, CC has not only links to materials that have been uploaded using their protective rights, they also have basic rules to follow if reposting materials online.

As you may have noticed in all of the six license types, “BY” or attribution, is included. Much like we teach our students, attribution is the base level. If you use an image/document found on their site, and/or is protected through their copyright, users must follow CC’s “citation” guidelines and policy.

Attributing Sources

The “Attributing Sources” section of the Creative Commons “Use/Remix” webpage shows a picture containing celebratory cupcakes decorated with the CC logo. This is a licensed picture uploaded by a Flikr user, Sixteen Miles of String.

Attribution text beneath the image:
“Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco” by Timothy Vollmer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While at first it’s unclear whether Sixteen Miles of String is indeed Timothy Vollmer, the image is clearly titled; and the creator’s name, license type and version are all displayed and hyperlinked.

Timothy Vollmer (creator name) is not the same person as Sixteen Miles of String, the Flikr user who reposted his material. The hyperlink goes directly to Vollmer’s Flikr page and the original image, labeled with the same title “Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco” and dated “Taken on December 8, 2012”. Vollmer’s page also includes a CC BY icon, hyperlinked and labeled, “Some rights reserved”. This hyper link leads to the same license summary page as the “CC BY 2.0” license/version hyperlink on the Creative Commons webpage (described below).

CC BY 2.0 is hyperlinked and leads to a summary page of the license with the header: “Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)” Beneath, the text notes “This is a human-readable summary of (and not a substitute for) the license. Disclaimer.”

The summary clarifies usage and basic protections, along with hyperlinks to the full license, disclaimer, and for those who might want to use the license for their own work.

“You are free to:

  • Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format.
  • Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.”

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.”

No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.”


  • Cite creator and work
  • Indicate if you’ve changed the image/text
  • Do not format language or context to indicate the creator has a connection to you or specifically supports your work
  • Hyperlink to the license on CC website

License Versions

Another interesting feature on the CC License summary page indicates and links to an updated version:

“A new version of this license is available. You should use it for new works, and you may want to relicense existing works under it. No works are automatically put under the new license, however.”

Sound familiar? Similar to traditional copyright law, the licenses shift as legal concerns and usage increases. Works licensed under previous versions are only protected to the extent their specific version describes. It is up to the creator to relicense and “update” their protections. While Vollmer’s original image was protected with 2.0, Creative Common’s website is currently using a 4.0 version.

Creative Commons Attributions Best Practices

Using the test example of the screenshot from CC’s webpage, how should the image be properly attributed? Does it belong to the original creator, Timothy Vollmer? To the Flikr user who reposted? To Creative Commons, since that’s where the image came from, or to the latest “photographer” who captured a screenshot?

Regardless of the additional licenses, all CC licenses have the CC and BY icons, meaning they are protected under CC copyrights and the basic attribution rights; and therefore must be properly labeled and linked.

TASL. TASL. TASL. Remember that. CC’s “Best Practices” links to Wikipedia and this explanation:

Title– Specific works must be named, using quotation marks
Author– Author(s) must be named, different authors for different works
Source– Original materials must be linked for different works
License– Licenses and version listed, must be linked to CC license

So according to these rules, both Vollmer and Creative Commons must be listed as content creators and CC license holders, though their licenses differ. The image could be renamed, but must include the official title, which belongs to Vollmer.

For example, the image could be labeled: “Screenshot of Creative Commons Use/Remix page with ‘Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco’ by Timothy Vollmer” or “Screenshot ‘Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco’ by Timothy Vollmer”

Both Vollmer and CC have rights, and since the screenshot is from CC, it only makes sense to credit them as well.

The main question here is where did the image come from? The screenshot came from CC’s webpage, not Vollmer’s original image.

Both Vollmer and Creative Commons have the basic CC BY, but Vollmer has version 2.0 and CC’s website is 4.0. Both should be taken into consideration, but again, the main focus in the newer image, because our usage includes the entire webpage, not just Vollmer’s image.

According to TASL, a good attribution for this work involving multiple authors:

Title image:
“Screenshot of CC Use/Remix Webpage with ‘Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco’ by Timothy Vollmer”

Author, Source, License:
Terms of use: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.01 and it can be found here2. The original version is attributed to Timothy Vollmer3 under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License and can be found here4.

  1. 1st hyperlink to CC BY 4.0 License.
  2. 2nd hyperlink to the CC Use/Remix webpage where the screenshot was taken.
  3. 3rd hyperlink to Vollmer’s page where the original image is located.
  4. 4th hyperlink to the CC BY 4.0 License.

To simplify this, especially since the original artist is named in the new title:

Terms of use: This work is attributed to Creative Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.01 and can be found here2.

  1. 1st hyperlink to CC BY 4.0 License.
  2. 2nd hyperlink to the CC Use/Remix webpage where the screenshot was taken. There they will find Vollmer’s links as well.

As with MLA and APA citation formats, the goal is clarity, as well as accuracy. As long as there is a clear trail that indicates where the original is located, and the most recent and stringent forms of licensing are applied, content users should not be worried that they are breaking the rules.

Please visit the Wiki “Best Practices for Attribution” for more examples.

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