Keeping Things Legal: Copyright Considerations for The #iteachmsu Commons

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Keeping Things Legal: Copyright Considerations for The #iteachmsu Commons

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Author :
Susan Kendall

Copyright Basics

Many people believe there is a blanket exception in the copyright law for education.  This is not true.  There are exceptions that allow instructors to use copyrighted material without special permission in face-to-face and real time classroom teaching.  This does not translate over to the posting material on a web site.  Posting materials on a web site is considered re-publication and not teaching, so teaching exceptions do not apply for #iteachmsu.   

The most important thing you need to understand about copyright is that all original works of authorship are copyrighted, by default, from the moment they are fixed in tangible form.  Since 1989, the copyright symbol, a copyright notice, or copyright registration are not required, so you must assume that everything is copyrighted unless you can confirm that it is not.  

Copyright belongs originally to the author and (for works published in the United States since 1978) lasts the life of the author plus 70 years.  As noted above for your own work, authors can sign away their copyrights, or many of the rights of copyright, however, and often do, when they publish.  So, it is important that you think about this when you publish.

Copyright, by definition, only applies to original works of authorship, so the following cannot be copyrighted:

  • Facts, procedures, ideas, systems, concepts, and principles
  • Mathematical equations
  • Lists of ingredients
  • Strictly factual photographs, such as photos of histology slides

Holding copyright in a work gives someone a number of exclusive rights, including the right to:

  • Reproduce all or part of the work
  • Prepare derivative works from the work
  • Distribute copies of the work, including through the internet
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

Some materials are considered to be in the public domain and do not have copyright protection.   The following types of materials are in the public domain:

  • Material published in the United States prior to 1924
  • Material created by a United States government employee and published by the United States government
  • Material which the owner has dedicated to the public domain

Using Outside Sources

The material that you post to #iteachmsu should be your own work, as you do not have the right to post, distribute, or display material that is not your own.  Of course, sometimes you will use outside sources in creating your own work, and you want to make sure that you do so legally. 

Public domain and uncopyrightable sources

It is legal for you to post and reproduce sources that are in the public domain (or uncopyrightable—see above lists in Copyright Basics) as well as create derivative works based on them.  Good scholarship says that you should still cite these sources and not simply plagiarize.   

Creative Commons sources

You may find materials on the web that are licensed under a Create Commons license similar to the one #iteachmsu asks its authors to use.  You should check which Creative Commons license was used to be clear on how you are allowed to use the material. 

  • Creative Commons attribution licenses allow you to use the material as you like as long as you give attribution. See How to give attribution.
  • Some Creative Commons licenses specify you may only use for non-commercial reasons or you must license your derived material similarly (“share alike”).
  • Creative Commons licenses that specify “no derivatives” mean that you may re-post the material but not remix or build your own work on it.

Other copyrighted sources

It is legal for you to use most copyrighted sources if you:

  • Cite ideas, facts, and other information
  • Link out to sources on the web
  • Quote short excerpts from textual works with attribution

However, even if you cite your source, you are probably infringing on someone else’s copyright if you:

  • Use larger portions of copyrighted texts
  • Closely paraphrase portions of copyrighted texts
  • Use parts of song lyrics or poems where even one line can be considered a significant portion of the work

Terms of use

On the web, some sources may come with licenses and terms of use that take precedence over basic copyright law.  MSU Library electronic resources all come with licenses and terms of use.  Using material that has terms of use means you agree to abide by those terms.

  • Look for “terms and conditions” on any web site, usually found in the small print at the bottom of the page or in an “about” section.
  • The terms may allow you to use portions on a site like #iteachmsu, or they may prohibit you from using any portion on any web site.
  • Terms of use may specify exactly how you may use the content. For instance, YouTube specifies that you may link to their videos or use their own embeddable player, but you may not download videos and save them on your own computer or server. 


Use of multimedia (images, music, video) can be especially fraught with possible copyright infringement issues.  For instance, most images that come up when you do a Google images search are not legal for you to reuse.  To stay legal you may:

  • Link out to videos and audio instead of downloading (which could violate terms of use)
  • Use a web site’s own embeddable player or a form of use that the site itself suggests
  • Use images that are marked public domain or with a Creative Commons license that allows re-use

Tip: To find public domain or Creative Commons images, you can search for “public domain images” or do a Google Images search, then, at the top of the page, click on “Tools”, then under that “usage rights”.  Limit your search using this link to images that are labelled for “reuse with modification”. 


Seeking Permissions

If you determine that it is probably not legal to reuse the work or the amount of the work that you selected, you may seek permission from the copyright holder to use the work.

There are a few caveats:

  • You must make sure you have identified the actual copyright holder of the material you want to use and not just someone else who is reusing the material. This can be difficult and time consuming if you are using material from Power Point slides and other non-traditional sources you find on the web.  
  • Because #iteachmsu may eventually be opened up to the public, you would need to seek permissions to post on the open web.
  • It is very unlikely you will receive permission to reuse commercially published material on a site like #iteachmsu.
  • If you are able to get permissions from commercial sources, the fees may be cost-prohibitive.

Because of these caveats and the nature of #iteachmsu, it is recommended that you please do not rely on being able to use or embed much, if any, outside, copyrighted sources in the materials you post. 


Getting Help with Copyright

The MSU Libraries Office of Copyright can be found at

Susan Kendall, Copyright Librarian, is available to help you work through a copyright question, although she cannot give legal advice.

The Office of Copyright can help with some permissions questions but asks that you consider copyright and the above caveats first before choosing your sources.

Posted by:
Jessica Shira Sender #iteachmsu
#libraries #copyright #msulibraries