Copyright, Creative Commons and Open Educational Resources (OER)


  1. What is copyright?
  2. Copyright and fair use
  3. Creative Commons
  4. Open Educational Resources


Copyright provides legal protection for creators of original materials against the unauthorized use of these materials. In a broader sense, copyright is one of several ways to protect intellectual property.

Various ways to protect intellectual property (modified from TASI – University of Bristol )

At the same time, copyright gives important information as to how materials can and should be shared. Copyright’s purpose is to balance the rights of copyright owners with the rights of the public to access and use of materials.

Copyright issues can often be complicated. The digital age has brought about new possibilities for using, manipulating and disseminating materials at such a rapid pace that lawmakers are finding it difficult to keep up. If you are in doubt whether or not you are infringing on someone else’s copyright please consult the legal adviser at your institution.

Copyright ownership In general, copyright protection is automatically afforded the creator of original material. Copyright registration is not necessary for copyright laws to take effect and to insure ownership. Most countries have signed one or more of the international copyright conventions (Berne Copyright Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, WIPO Copyright Treaty) such that materials falling within the scope of these conventions are protected internationally.

Ownership in an academic setting is not always straight forward. Institutions can choose to retain ownership of materials produced by their employees. Joint ownership is also a possibility and will depend upon the nature of the authorship for example inter-institutional collaboration, student contributions or work-for-hire contributions. Policies vary between universities. It is wise, therefore, to check your institution’s policies to be sure.

Copyright in a digital world Digital materials, including images are generally protected by copyright in the same way as materials produced in other media. Digital materials are not given any special status. One of the most frequent questions asked is whether or not materials placed on a password protected site are subject to copyright laws. The answer is yes, copyright laws apply regardless of whether or not the material is password protected. Password protection can however be a positive factor for copyright owners in granting permission to use their materials.

Providing links to other web-based materials is generally accepted without having to seek permission. There are however a few rules of thumb. E-journals, for example, generally allow users to link to individual articles. In other cases, linking should be to the home page of the site where materials are found. Linking to a page within the site that bypasses the home page (so called ’deep linking’) may present materials out of context or circumvent financial support (advertising) tied to the number of visitors to the home page. Be careful also with ’embedded’ links where materials from another website are opened within your own website. This could give the impression of ownership. Here, it is best to choose ”open in a new window” when linking to these materials.


Useful sites

  • This is a very informative and comprehensive website concerning intellectual property and copyright in the digital environment. It was developed by the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET) at the University of Cambridge.

  • TASI is hosted at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology at the University of Bristol. Here you will find valuable information about copyright, particularly with respect to digital images.


Copyright and fair use Fair use or fair dealing are terms often used to describe the way in which copyright materials can be used such as:

  • Private study or non-commercial research
  • Criticism or review of publicly available works
  • Copying for educational purposes
  • Reporting current events

The University of Texas System has developed the Four Factor Fair Use Test to help people decide whether or not proposed use of copyright material would be considered fair use.
In this test, the use of a particular work should be judged with respect to four questions. For each question, there is a scale from ’fair use’ to ’get permission’. A judgement must be made as to the total balance for the four questions – does the balance tip in favor of fair use or in favor of getting permission.

Fair use  ====>   Get permission

  1. What is the character of the use?
    • Non-profit --------------> Commercial
  2. What is the nature of the work to be used?
    • Fact --------------> Imaginative                                         
    • Published  --------------> Unpublished
  3. How much of the work will you use?
    • Small amount   -------------->  More than a small amount
  4. What effect would this use have on the market for the original or for permissions if the use were widespread?
    • Fair use   -------------->   Competes with original
    • Little effect     -------------->    Avoids payment for use


Creative Commons Copyright was originally created to strike a balance between innovation and protection, to stimulate individual initiative and provide public goods. The debate around copyright in recent years has been polarized, either arguing for full creative control or for free use. As a result, the dual purpose of copyright has been lost.

To get back on track, Creative Commons ( was established to allow for a more explicit move from ”All rights reserved” to ”Some rights reserved”. As stated on the Creative Commons website (

”……..our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them — to declare “some rights reserved.”

The author or creator of material can choose the conditions that he/she wishes to apply to their work. The underlying hope is that this will lead to a more active sharing of creative work in the public interest. For this reason, we suggest that faculty consider licensing their work under Creative Commons.

If you would like to know more about  Creative Commons please watch this video:

Find Creative Commons registered resources:

  • You can search through Creative Commons licensed resources in Google, Yahoo, Flickr and several other databases here. 
  • Find Creative Commons licensed images on Flickr.



Open educational resources (OER) are digital learning materials that are freely available for using, sharing and, in many cases, adapting and sharing again. UNESCO was the first to coin the term OER and believes sharing learning materials among teachers is a win-win situation. The OER movement is growing rapidly within the global educational community as more and more universities and schools are making their learning resources freely available. OpenCourseWare is also a term used that refers to free and open learning materials of high quality that are organized as courses.

There are many databases that provide open educational resources ranging from YouTube’s own YouTube EDU to MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. Have a look at the following sites:


  • YouTube EDU gives you access to videos of lectures and much more from many leading universities around the world.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the first university to make their teaching materials freely available under the motto ”Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds”
  • OER Commons is a site for sharing teaching and learning materials: