Using Copyrighted and Library Content

Find out how you can legally and ethically use copyrighted and library content in your academic research, instruction, essays & writings, and creative projects. Legal disclaimer: this copyright guide is meant for informational & educational purposes only.

Library Research Guide

Content You Can Share Publicly Online or in a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC)


This page will provide you with guidelines to legally and ethically reuse others' content in an open online setting, such as a blog or a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

The content on this page is based on the Framework for Analyzing any U.S. Copyright Problem, which has been modified and adapted specifically for the reuse of content in open online settings and in MOOCs.


Copyright symbol with phrase: "When in doubt, link it out!"1. When in doubt, link it out!

If possible, provide a link to the resource rather than include a copy of the resource in your open online setting. That way, you don’t have to worry about copyright concerns, because you aren’t reproducing the content.




Public Domain symbol2. Find content in the public domain

In other words, the copyright term has expired or the work never had copyright protection.

Here is an image that is in the public domain.

Moon panorama, series of photos taken by NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt, later combined to create a panorama, 1972

All works created by U.S. government employees when acting in their direct job responsibilities are in the public domain.

Public Domain Resources




Creative Commons Icon

3. Use Creative Commons Licensed (CCL) content

Find content with Creative Commons Licensing (CCL). CCL enables authors to establish a set of licenses or permissions that determine how others can use their work. Creative Commons (CC) doesn't replace copyright, but it does make it easier to determine how someone can use a particular work.

CCL works can easily be used in a public/open website or in a MOOC, but be sure to comply with the CCL Terms of Use.

For example, all the licenses require attribution, which is as simple as including an in-text citation and/or attribution to the source in a reference list. See the caption below this image for an example of an in-text citation/attribution.

Diagram of the Water Cycle, showing how water is stored and transported across the planet.
Photo courtesy of Ehud Tal, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA).

Creative Commons Resources




"Fair Use" Text above the Balance of Law Scales Image


4. Rely on fair use.

  • Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act
  • Be sure you have a legal copy of the content you are using.
  • Ensure that the copyrighted work you are using is crucial to your educational, scholarly, or creative objective.
  • If the resource can easily be replaced by another resource that is in the public domain or has a CCL, it is probably not fair use.

Image courtesy of OpenClipArt-Vectors,
CC0, adapted by Rachel Miles

Fair Use Resources




Permission Granted Stamp

Image adapted from


5. Request permission

  •  Be sure to specify that the content will be used in an open online context and available to anyone worldwide with an Internet connection. If it is going to be available in a MOOC, explain the educational nature of the use.
  • Be sure to archive all permission letters, even if it's just an email granting you permission.


Permission Requests Resource

Content You Cannot Share Publicly Online or in a MOOC

  • Content licensed by the library for use by the university are otherwise restricted to authorized users and should never be publicly shared online.
  • Copyrighted content you found on a website that does not allow you to legally download their content or for which you have not obtained permission from the rights holder(s).
    • Check the website's terms of use to ensure you are allowed to download the content for "personal use" or your "own use." Sometimes, terms are even more specific and allow for use as long the use is non-commercial, for example.
  • Legally obtained copyrighted content for which you do not have a good fair use argument or for which you have not received permission to use it.