Copyright Tips

Self-service guide to analyzing copyright questions in your courses


About this Guide

The Libraries of the University of Maine System comply with all Copyright Laws of the United States, and encourage appropriate use of our materials under the doctrine of Fair Use.

While the information in this short course cannot be construed as legal advice, we hope it offers value in assessing and navigating the legal implications of using copyrighted materials in your courses.  

All images used in this guide are in the public domain unless otherwise captioned.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, audiovisual and certain other works, including software.

This protection is available to both published and unpublished works that are fixed in a tangible medium. Works do not have to display the copyright symbol © to be protected!  Copyright does not protect ideas; it protects the expression of ideas. 

The law gives the owner of copyright the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies publicly, to perform the work publicly, to display the work publicly, and, in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. The owner of the copyright may transfer all or part of these rights to others. 

Subject to some exceptions described in this guide, a person exercising any of these rights in another’s work without permission, the person may be liable for copyright infringement.  

These are NOT protected by copyright:

  • common knowledge,ideas, facts, titles, names, procedures, html coding and works not fixed in tangible form
  • items in the public domain
  • government works, such as judicial opinions, public ordinances and administrative rulings

How to analyze and conquer a copyright problem

Public Domain

Public Domain: A short explanation

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and
which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:

  • the term of copyright for the work has expired
  • the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
  • the work is a work of the U.S. Government
  • the author chose to dedicate their works to the worldwide public domain

Resources on determining Public Domain

Creative Commons

Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization, enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. This is a great resource for finding materials to use as well as sharing your work with the world. The website contains a section dedicated to Public Domain Tools.

Fair Use

Fair Use

Fair Use is an exemption to the rights of copyright holders.

17 U.S. Code § 107 FAIR USE
The fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use is a fair use, four factors need to be considered:
(1) the purpose and character of the use (commercial vs. nonprofit educational purposes, scholarship, transformational, criticism, etc.)
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work (fiction vs. non-fiction, publishes vs. unpublished, highly creative work, etc.)
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole(small amount, entire work, heart of the work are things to consider)
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for value of the copyrighted work (no effect, avoiding a purchase, owned, permission available)

from the U.S. Copyright Office

Fair Use FAQs

Is Fair Use a law?

Yes, Fair Use is codified in Title 17, Section 107 of the U.S. Code.

Is Fair Use only for educators?

No, fair use applies to everyone, nonprofit and commercial users alike. There are, however, certain privileges for educational uses.

Is all educational use "fair use?"


What are some examples of ways copyrighted works can be used under the  fair use exemption?

You can use small portions of a copyrighted work to comment and illustrate a point, report news, do research or scholarship, criticism or parody.

How much of a work can I use safely?

There are no amounts or percentages in the law. If you have heard of percentages, those most likely come from guidelines developed over the years by groups like CONFU, but these percentages are not written into the law. When using copyrighted work, use the least amount necessary. Although the law does not specify any amounts, copyright scholars seem comfortable with approximately 10% of a work. If however you have chosen the "heart of the work," a much smaller amount might fail the fair use test. The "heart of the work" of a book might be the pages with the key turning point of a story or the revealing motivation for a person's action. For a song, it might be the 4 second refrain that is recognized worldwide, across generations.

You may have more leeway with amount when you are creating a parody.

What is transformative use?

Think of this along with your first fair use factor. The nature of the use may be commercial or nonprofit, and nonprofit uses are always considered more favorably. But your use may be more than that.  If what you do with the copyrighted work adds new meaning, brings new value, or repurposes a work, you have transformed it beyond its original use. The problem with transformative work is that you may think a use is transformative, but the judge may not. It is not always predictable. 

Stanford University has some examples to illustrate successful and unsuccessful transformative work.

How do I apply Fair Use in the classroom or in my distance education class?

For class handouts in a face to face classroom, see the tab marked "Classroom Guidelines."

For the use of performance and display in classrooms using digital transmissions (Brightspace, Moodle, etc), see thef TEACH Act.

What's new with Fair Use?
Professional communities of practice are beginning to issue best practices for interpreting Fair Use. Some of these are:

 Our thanks to the librarians at the University of Missouri--Kansas City for allowing UMA to reuse this text!

Fair Use basics

With thanks to Hamline Libraries for sharing their video 

Get Permission

Get Permission

How do I obtain permission?  

  • Determine if permission is needed. (See How to Analyze a Copyright Problem)
  • Identify the owner.
  • Identify the rights needed.
  • Contact the owner and negotiate whether payment is required.
  • Get your permission agreement in writing.

See more at Stanford Universities Libraries informational page the Basics of Getting permission:

Permissions Directory

If you need assistance getting permission for copyrighted material please contact Brenda Sevigny-Killen at 207.621.3351 or 

Distance Education and the TEACH Act

Links to Resources

The Teach Act

One More Considerationcrayons

The TEACH Act Requirements and Distance Education 

The TEACH Act (Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act) amended the copyright law by loosening the restrictions on using copyrighted works in distance education.  The revised section 110(2) and added section 112 (f) of the U. S. Copyright Act allows educators to use certain copyrighted works in distance education without permission from the copyright owner and without copyright infringement.  In order to benefit, educational institutions and faculty must adhere to the Act’s conditions and requirements.

Important points to know in relation to UMS online courses include but are not limited to:

  • The use of the copyrighted material must be technologically limited to only students enrolled in the class.
  • The material is a lawfully made or acquired copy.
  • The materials are of the proper type and amount the law authorizes (for example: streaming a motion picture in it's entirety is not allowable under the TEACH Act).
  • The material is available to the students only for the period of time that is relevant to the context of the class session, not the duration of a particular course (i.e. semester or term).
  • The material is an integral part of the class activities and directly relates  to the class content.

Best Practices

Best Practices by Media


In providing students with supplemental course materials, simply posting the copyrighted materials to your Brightspace course site may be infringing on copyright law. Librarians are happy to assist with creating an electronic reserve. We follow American Library Association's best practices regarding Fair Use and Electronic Reserves. Some considerations:

  • Please consider using licensed UMS databases for additional course materials as they already contain copyright clearances.
  • Articles, book chapters and class notes may be put on e-reserve; entire books cannot.
  • Librarians are able to remediate e-reserve items for users needing "accessibility compliant" materials, that is, materials for use with assistive technologies.  
  • For materials found on the World Wide Web, creating a link to the resource in your Brightspace course site is preferable over making a digital copy for posting.
  • Materials posted in the e-reserve folder will be removed at the end of each semester.
  • Repeated use of materials may violate Fair Use guidelines and therefore must be considered each semester they are used.
  • Please contact Brenda Sevigny-Killen at 207.621.3351 or email for detailed information and requests.

Want to stream a major motion picture or a documentary?

Use the Copyright Advisory Network's Exemptions for Instructors tool to for help making decisions about your use of online video:

Under the TEACH Act you may stream portions of the film for a class session only (not the entire semester).  For streaming the entire film for the entire semester, permission may be necessary. 

This act DOES NOT apply when a film's distributor limits use with their license. License restrictions always trump the TEACH Act.

While the TEACH Act may allow an instructor to stream a film in an online classroom, the act does not make it legal to break anti-copy technology to rip the content of the film from its DVD so it can be streamed.

While playing a DVD in a face-to-face class is allowed it does not imply it can be copied and shown online.

A major consideration is whether your use is for entertainment (not likely if you are teaching a course) or transformative (you are teaching a film class and the use is for criticism and discussion). Another factor is what the film's original intent was. Streaming an educational documentary for educational purposes may be infringement while streaming an entertainment video for critique and commentary may fall under fair use.

Librarians are happy to give copyright guidance on whether your use complies with copyright law. For assistance contact Brenda Sevigny-Killen at 207.621.3351 or email

puffin with eels in beak

Puffin by Judith. Used under CC BY-NC 

Using copyrighted images in your Bs course site or in a classroom presentation will likely fall under Fair Use

Posting copyrighted images on a website or using them in published work without permission is copyright infringement.

Your options:

  • Use public domain images
  • Use Creative Commons Licensed images
  • Use your own images
  • Seek permission from the copyright holder.

Thanks to the Butler University Libraries for creating and sharing this fabulous comprehensive guide on Using Images

Attribution for Images information - Butler University Libraries. Used under CC-BY Creative Commons Attribution License

Copyright for Music Librarians

The University of Maine System licenses with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC each year to allow for performance of music.  Open recitals, like Jazz Week, are covered by these licenses with the exception of theatrical performances where music is involved (e.g. musicals).  Please contact Rob Sobczak if you have questions.

Getting Permission

ASCAP - The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers 

BMI - Broadcast Music, Inc.

SESAC - not an acronym!

Copyright Free Resources

Copyright Free

Each site and, in some cases, each image has its own "terms of use." Be sure to review Terms of Use for all images.
​Usage of some images for non-profit research or study might be allowed under Fair Use but you must cite your sources to give credit to the creator. 
Attribution for used images for a published research paper or book is likely different than for a class project or presentation where a citation to the original source is sufficient. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

My use of [choose any or all] video, articles, books, images, music is educational so I can put it in Brightspace... right?

Educational use addresses the "purpose" of the use but is only one of four factors that must be considered.  Nature, amount, and effect on the market must be considered as well. See the Fair Use Checklist for determining Fair Use.

Can I put my textbook on e-reserve?

This is not permissible under copyright law.  In some cases one chapter on e-reserve is permissible under fair use.  Have you considered using open access textbooks to sve your students' some money?  For more information see the Open Access Textbooks website.

Should I use YouTube videos in my Brightspace class?

Educators use a variety of media in the classroom, as you know; determining whether the use is considered covered by Fair Use or the TEACH act is covered elsewhere in this guide.

Typically, we advise against using work that has been illegally copied and loaded onto YouTube.  Within reason, we can certainly make clips and create streams for your use in films.  It sounds like the same thing--they're both streams--the difference is one is paid for and then streamed on a secure server where the link is disabled after the semester is over, while the other is of unknown origin and may be taken down by the true copyright holder. Even if it is a legal copy it may be taken down unexpectedly.
Students are using images from internet sources (that may be copyrighted) in their group presentations.  I’ve also used images I found on “Google Image”.  Am I infringing on the copyright?  
Most likely not.  As long as the images are used in class, it’s fine.  Just keep it a reasonably short period of time (a semester is the rule), and get permission if you plan to re-use the image.   

I found an article in one our databases this morning—I want students in my online class to read it this week.  Can I copy and paste it into Black Board?

See the e-reserves box in the Best Practices tab for more information.

What are the rules for downloading audio and video content from a public site (like Reuters/NYtimes/AP/etc.) and providing that video for students in a blended classroom environment? 

Embedding copyrighted content (streaming video from a public site like You Tube, NY Times, or other freely available sites) is not permissible.  It is permissible, however, to post a link to the streaming content so that viewers can access it themselves—try to make sure the link is to a legitimate source.

Can I stream an entire video through my Brightspace course site?

This depends. You may need permission from the copyright holder. There may be a licensing agreement that makes copying and redistribution acceptable. Or there may be a streaming service that will provide a stream legally.

Consider using portions of a video rather than the whole as streaming may fall under fair use or the TEACH Act. 

What are the rules for providing students with content that they have access to through the UMA library databases in a blended or purely online classroom?

Any content used in the online classroom and shared with students should be provided via e-reserves.  If that is not possible, a chapter from a book for example, provide a scanned copy to the e-reserves librarian for uploading in the e-reserves folder.

What are the rules for posting instructor resources online?  What about PPT files that accompany a textbook? 

Check the contract from the vendor.  In many cases, the files may be uploaded onto Brightspace if it is to be used in conjunction with the textbook, but to be on the safe side, check the contract on the DVD itself.

Are there any copyright exceptions for online courses?

Yes. See information on the TEACH (Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization) Act of 2002 and Fair Use elsewhere in this guide.