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Shifting to online instruction

Instructors often wonder when it’s okay to use copyrighted works when teaching. As explained on this site’s “Copyright in the classroom” page, United States copyright law provides important exceptions to the rights of copyright holders that are specifically helpful for teaching. When classes move online, using copyrighted works for pedagogical purposes is often legal for the same reasons it’s legal for in-person classes.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when thinking about copyright and online instruction:

Use Canvas, Moodle, or other campus-approved platforms

Even classes with in-person meetings have long had online components, usually using a Learning Management System (LMS). Most UC campuses use Canvas or Moodle, which you might know by a name like CatCourses, bCourses, GauchoSpace, iRocket, or CCLE. Whatever the system is called, when an instructor shares an article, image, or other copyrighted work there, access is limited to those individuals enrolled in or added to the course. Using the campus’s official LMS is more likely to be fair use (see section on fair use below) and involves significantly less risk than sharing the same thing on an open website the whole world can access.

Similarly, when creating instructional exhibits or project sites using tools like Google Sites or Omeka, the sharing of curated materials on those sites is more likely to be fair use when access to the sites requires authentication, or is otherwise limited to university users.

Link when you can

Many resources you want your students to read or view are already available online on the Web or through your library’s catalog and databases. You can simply provide links to such resources, and avoid the copyright implications of making copies.

  • For news articles, blog posts, and other materials on the open web, links should be easy to find. (But be wary of sharing unauthorized copies. If something on YouTube looks fishy, it probably is.)
  • Video content may be available on popular streaming services, and your students may already have access to them through those platforms. Your campus library may also have streaming services you and your students can use.
  • Books and articles may be available online through library subscriptions. You can provide students with a link directly to something the library subscribes to using UC Library Search and Get it at UC. If you're not sure how to use Get it at UC, contact your campus library.

Rely on fair use

As explained on the Copyright in the classroom page, making multiple copies of copyrighted works for teaching is a common fair use, particularly when digital copies are provided only for the duration of the course for which they are needed, and limited to students enrolled in a course and other appropriate individuals, as discussed above. In other words: use Canvas or campus-authorized platforms.

Fair use is flexible and context specific, and individual instructors are the ones best situated to understand the pedagogical value of sharing a particular work with a class. Please keep in mind that the fair use doctrine in U.S. law requires all four of the factors to be evaluated in determining whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is a permitted fair use. Under UC’s Copyright and fair use policy, “the University will defend its employees who use copyrighted materials in an informed, reasonable, and good faith manner, and within the scope of their University employment” in the unlikely event of a copyright infringement claim.

Visit these resources to learn more about fair use and evaluate whether it’s fair use to share particular materials in your online course include:

During global crises like the COVID-19 outbreak, all UC campuses moved to remote instruction. The change happened swiftly, leaving some students unable to retrieve course materials they had previously purchased, instructors unable to show movies in class, and everyone unable to enter the library. But there are many resources regarding fair use and other areas of copyright law that provide useful guidance for remote instruction. For example, instructors can read the Statement on Fair Use and Emergency Remote Teaching and Research to better understand copyright law and its application in the context of COVID-19.

Ask for permission (but only if you need it)

If you want to use something for your course, but it’s likely not fair use to do so, you may still be able to use it:

  • Not everything is protected by copyright. Learn more on this site’s page about the public domain.
  • Some authors have expressly given permission for use of their work by sharing it under a Creative Commons license. Learn more at the Creative Commons website.
  • The copyright holder may be willing to give you permission. Learn more on the page about obtaining permissions.

Get help from your campus library

Library buildings are closed, but library resources are still available. Libraries have experts in paid and free content and other resources, how to link to them, and how to learn more about copyright. Visit your campus library’s website to learn what services are available. If you don’t see an answer to your question you can email the library, or perhaps arrange a phone or video chat with a librarian to get help.

If you have copyright questions unrelated to library resources, you can also email this site at