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How to Find Openly Available Resources for Use in Online Education

November 24, 2014

Attempting to navigate copyright law can be intimidating, especially in the context of online teaching. The exceptions to copyright protection afforded by section 110 of US copyright law grant us, as educators, a wide degree of latitude in our use of protected materials in the course of face-to-face teaching. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on these exceptions in the online environment, even if the transmission of protected materials is password protected and available only to students enrolled in the course. Instead, we must rely on the “fair use” exception to copyright law, which requires us to perform and document a fair use analysis for each protected item we would like to use in online teaching. As you can imagine, this can be a lot of work.

There are, however, some additional options! As education and research continue to shift to online environments, the increasing complexity of copyright barriers is accompanied by an increasing number of openly available resources. So, before performing and documenting a fair use analysis on each item you would like to use in your teaching, with a little digging, you may be able to find alternatives that are either free of copyright protection, or licensed for use in your teaching.

Public Domain: The public domain is a commons that consists of works where copyright protection has expired, been forfeited, or is inapplicable. Works created prior to 1923 are generally in the public domain, as are government works. This last category is quite broad, as it includes documents, sounds and images such as those taken by NASA telescopes, and a wide range of other resources. The Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University has compiled an extensive list of resources for openly available text, sound and video files, and more.

Creative Commons Licensing: Creative Commons (CC) licenses are free, easy to use, and both human and machine-readable. CC licenses allow the authors of works published online to clearly indicate which permissions others have to use their works. In addition, the machine-readability of the licenses ensures that materials published under them can be easily found online, often in indexes you may already be using. Creative Commons partners with a number of databases, which you may search here. In addition, you can filter search results on Google Images and Flickr by creative commons license, to ensure that the material you find is available for use in your online teaching. More information on how to search for CC licensed materials may be found here.

Open Access: Open Access (OA) describes scholarly research that is published digitally, is free to read, and free of many copyright restrictions. Because of these limited restrictions, OA material may be reproduced for online teaching. This content may be found in institutional repositories such as TigerPrints at Clemson, or through aggregators such as the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Just like traditional journals, Open Access Journals vary in quality, though many fields have at least one open access journal ranking near the top in impact. Additional information on OA publication and scholarly communication more broadly, may be found here.

So, when you find yourself in need of materials for use in online teaching, you may be able to avoid gnarly copyright roadblocks altogether by finding and using openly available alternative resources. Of course, at times there is no alternative for a particular protected resource and in those cases, a fair use analysis will be necessary.

For additional information on Fair Use

Additional information on openly available resources

More on copyright in online instruction

For questions on copyright, open access, scholarly communication, or TigerPrints institutional repository: awesole@clemson.edu

|Written by Clemson University’s Andrew Wesolek*,  Head of Digital Scholarship

*Andrew Wesolek is not an attorney, and so, this should not be construed as legal advice.



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