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OER & Affordable Course Materials: Legal Licenses for Open

Resources to aid faculty in the areas of copyright/fair use, OER resources and integrating articles into Canvas

Legally Open Access

It is always safer to assume intellectual content is covered by copyright. The exceptions to copyright are public domain materials, creative commons licensed materials, and materials published online intended for consumption without a paywall.


Public Domain

Materials in the public domain are not protected by copyright and may be used freely, without obtaining permission from or compensating the copyright owner. Determining copyright status is complicated. In general, published materials produced by the federal government or are older than 95 years are in the public domain. Refer to the flowchart for help determining if materials are public domain.


Creative Commons Licenses

CC licenses are copyright licenses and are legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. For more information visit the CC non-profit's FAQ.


Free Online Materials

Many websites produce their own content and make a decision to provide access free of cost because it benefits them. Other's websites, like YouTube or Facebook, allow users to post or upload content and they monitor for copyright violations. Websites often compensate for lost income with advertisements or internal funding. The links for online materials may break without notice. 

Public Domain Flowchart

Pay for Access

Intellectual content is covered by intellectual property laws, like copyright, patents, and trademarks, except under very specific instances. A foundational understanding of copyright helps to understand what is and is not open access.



Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. It protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.To learn more about copyright visit the Copyright Office's FAQ.


Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner. For more information see the Copyright Office's Definitions.


Fair Use

Fair use is a legal doctrine under Section 107 of the Copyright Act that promotes using copyrighted materials for purposes such as:

  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News reporting
  • Teaching
  • Scholarship 
  • Research
Fair Use - Four Factors

Fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis and is evaluated on four factors:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; 
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Visit the Copyright Office for More Information on Fair Use to learn more about the four factors.