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Copyright at the University of San Francisco

Please note that this site should not be considered legal advice. It is to be used for educational purposes only. CC-BY unless otherwise noted.

USFFA and AAUP Guidance

Concerns about your intellectual property while teaching online?

As detailed in the "What is Copyright" tab of this guide, with some exceptions, copyright protection applies to "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression" (17 U.S. Code §102a). Note the words "original" and "fixed" - it needs to be both things.

At the University of San Francisco, teaching materials belong to the instructor. This includes your slides, lecture notes, assignments, graphics, and other materials, whether electronic, printed, or in an audiovisual recording. For example, if you've recorded an original lecture, then your lecture is automatically copyrighted, because it is fixed (recorded) and original. 

You might be concerned about whether people are sharing your content and image in the context of your classroom. Copyright law protects student rights as well, among them free speech, satire, and commentary, but you can address student sharing of classroom materials in the context of privacy, mutual respect, and the student code of conduct. Instructors should clearly tell student what is and isn't okay both in the syllabus and in class discussion of expectations.

Concerned about educational materials in the online environment?

Copyright case law typically favors a educational uses because of the public benefits. There are a lot of pedagogical and technical issues that make the shift from in-person to online teaching challenging, but for once, copyright is not a big additional area of worry! Most of the legal issues are the same in both contexts. If it was okay to do in class, it is often okay to do online, especially when your online access is limited to the same enrolled students.

If it was legal to show slide images in class, it is likely legal to show them to students via live video conferencing or in recorded videos.  This may be a surprise if you have heard that there is a big difference between class lecture slides and online conference slides - but the issue is usually less offline versus online, than a restricted versus an unrestricted audience. As long as your new course video is being shared through course websites limited to the same enrolled students, the legal issues are fairly similar.

Many instructors routinely post a copy of their slides as a file for students to access after in-person course meetings, which also likely doesn't present any new issues after online course meetings.

In-lecture use of audio or video

Here, the differences between online and in-person teaching can be a bit more complex. Playing audio or video off of physical media during an in-person class session is 100% legal at the University of San Francisco under a provision of copyright law called the "Face-to-Face Classroom Use Exemption". The face-to-face exemption doesn't usually cover playing the same media online. However, in these exigent circumstances many academic video distributors (but not the consumer platforms like Netflix, Prime, etc.) are permitting their DVDs to be played online to classes or granting streaming rights within password-protected course management systems. If you would like to show a video online, have questions about using media content or would like access to streaming media, contact Media Librarian Debbie Benrubi. If you can limit audio and video use for your course to relatively brief clips, you may be able to include those in lecture recordings or live-casts under the copyright provision called fair use

Course readings and other resources

Hopefully, by mid-semester, your students have already gotten access to all assigned reading materials. If not, the Gleeson Library Online Library Resources and Services team can help with finding things online - linking to Libraries subscription resources, finding ebooks where available, and much more.

If you want to share additional materials with students yourself as you revise instructional plans,or if you want students to share more resources with each other in an online discussion board, keep in mind some simple guidelines:

It's always easiest to link!

Linking to publicly available online content like news websites, existing online videos, etc is rarely a copyright issue. (Better not to link to existing content that looks obviously infringing itself - Joe Schmoe's YouTube video of the entire "Black Panther" movie is probably not a good thing to link to. But Sara Someone's 2-minute video of herself and her best friend talking over a few of the pivotal scenes may be fair use, and is not something you should worry about linking to.)

Linking to subscription content through the Libraries is also a great option - a lot of our subscription content will have DOIs, PURLs, or other "permalink" options, all of which should work even for off-campus users. For assistance linking to any particular libraries subscription content, refer to to the electronic resources permalink guide.

Sharing copies

Making copies of new materials for students (by downloading and uploading files, or by scanning from physical documents) can present some copyright issues, but they're not different from those involved in deciding whether to share something online with your students when you are meeting in-person. It's better not to make copies of entire works - but most instructors don't do that! Copying portions of works to share with students will often be fair use, and at times (especially in unusual circumstances, or with works that aren't otherwise commercially available) it may even be fair use to make lengthier copies.

Where an instructor doesn't feel comfortable relying on fair use, your subject liaison librarian may be able to suggest alternative content that is already online through library subscriptions, or publicly online content. The Libraries may also be able to help you seek formal copyright permissions to provide copies to students - but there may be some issues with getting permissions on short timelines.

Audiovisual & Multimedia viewing/listening

Showing an entire movie or film or musical work online may be a bit more of an issue than playing it in class - but there may be options for your students to access it independently online. The Libraries already have quite a bit of licensed streaming video content, which you are welcome to use in your online course. If you have questions about our holdings or would like to request streaming access to additional media content, please contact Debbie Benrubi.

Consumer streaming options like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Disney+ may sometimes be the easiest or even the only option for streaming, particularly for feature films. Unfortunately the consumer platforms do not have options for libraries to subscribe to their content. The library can sometimes license the content elsewhere. Where there are no other options, fair use may sometimes extend to playback of an entire work, but again, that will generally only be true for unusual outliers.

Here are some additional resources on copyright issues in shifting courses online:

Adapted from “Rapidly shifting your course from in-person to online” by Nancy Sims, University of Minnesota Libraries, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.