The Educator’s Guide to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

Lately, we’ve been hearing more and more about digital copyrights and fair use in the news and online – particularly with the whole SOPA/PIPA uproar that recently swept the web.

Also, we on the Edublogs support team have been getting more and more complaints and official requests to remove copyrighted content that users have placed on blogs.

The legal jargon with respect to digital copyrights can be confusing – especially since different countries have their own laws and regulations.

With this post, we hope to dispel a few myths and pull together a complete list of resources for teachers and students to use when blogging and working with content online.

Rule #1: You Can’t Use Everything You Find On the Web

Dexter the cat hates those that steal his photos…

This may seem obvious, but judging by the notices we have received, many teachers (and especially students) are under the impression that if it is on the web, then it is up for grabs.

If you and your students keep rule #1 in mind, then everything else should be fine.

Rule #2: There Are Resources You CAN Use

One of the myths out there is that you can’t use any image, video, or content from another website on your blog.

That simply isn’t true, and we’ll cover our favorite sources of “fair use” and “public domain” sources at the end of this post.

It is troubling that while copyright is important to protect the hard work of others, it can also stifle creativity and hamper educational goals. Though SOPA is effectively dead at the moment, there is a legitimate need for newer laws that are built around the open and free-sharing nature of the web.

Understanding Fair Use

You might be aware that as educators, we have a few more flexible rules, called “Fair Use”, to play by.

That is, in some cases, if an image, text, video, etc. is being used for educational purposes, there might be more flexible copyright rules.

For example, a video that was purchased in a store can usually be shown in a classroom when the video is tied to the curriculum being taught. Otherwise, showing a class full of students a video would be considered a “public performance” and would be against the law.

The trouble is, most of the laws and rules that cover fair use and education were written well before the invention of the web.

While a textbook or curricula resource might allow for photocopying for classroom use, it most likely isn’t going to allow you to make a PDF of the document and put it on your class blog or website for students to print themselves.

The end result would be the same, right? A student would have a printed copy.

But make sure to check specific copyright restrictions before uploading anything you’ve scanned to the web!

For more, check out the Fair Use FAQ for Educators here from the excellent resource site,

What Can Be a Violation?

Here are the most common types of content that we have been contacted about and asked to remove on our blogs:

  • Images – mostly found through google image search
  • Curriculum docs – especially handouts and student activities
  • Text and quotes – copy/pasted from other websites (even with a link or attribution it still may not be legal)
  • Music – usually mp3s that students have uploaded to share on their blogs

But I Won’t Be Caught…

If only that were true.

Google makes it incredibly easy for companies and content creators to seek out those posting their work on the web.

Sadly, we are also noticing more and more “law firms” and organizations out there looking for copyrighted content as a way of generating business. They then contact the copyright holder offering their services to get the content removed (for a fee of course).

It is a ruthless (and apparently profitable) practice, and we’d be lying if we haven’t argued with a few that contact Edublogs about how they are hurting the education of students. But let’s keep on topic…

What If I Am Caught?

Little did Dexter know, but he was going on this flight anyway…

Well of course in this case a good offense is your best defense. Check your blogs and class websites for any potentially offending material. If you find anything, just remove it.

The law requires copyright holders to give you (and the host of your site, such as Edublogs, WordPress, etc.) an official notification. Take these seriously and act quickly to remove what they want if you are in the wrong. That should be the end of it.

We were recently notified about a teacher with a blog on Edublogs that had a harmless world map image on his blog that he had presumably found using Google image search. When we contacted him telling him why we had removed the image, he asked if he and his students could write an apology letter to the copyright holder.

It was excellent – turning what could be a bit of an embarrassing mistake into a teachable moment for his students! Now this teacher had a good reason to discuss copyright and creative commons with his students…

So What Is Creative Commons?

One thing to look for when figuring out if a resource (ie. image, video, text, etc.) is free to copy or embed on your blog, is a Creative Commons license.

For example, look at the bottom right corner of the sidebar of this blog. You’ll see that we license all content on this blog as “Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike”.

That is fancy talk for letting you know that you are free to use anything on this blog as long as you:

  1. give an attribution or credit that lets others know where you got the info with a link,
  2. won’t profit in any way from using our content and use it for non-business purposes only, and
  3. anything you create with our content, you must use the same license.

Luckily, the website has a ton of excellent information and makes it easy to grab the license you wish to have on your own blog. If you (or your students) have blogs, then it is a good idea to choose the most appropriate license and make it visible on your blog.

In our case, we pasted the code they provided into a blank text widget in our sidebar.

Where To Find The Goods

We found our dog, Durango, wandering the busy streets of Durango, Mexico!


Creative Commons Search – Search many sites at once *Our Favorite! – Free images from photographers around the world – One free photo per day – Huge resource for avatars or small images

Flickr Advanced Search – Use advanced search filters to show only CC licensed images

Morguefile – Free stock photos (Thanks Sue Lyon-Jones for link in comments!)

Open Clipart Libary – Public domain clipart (Thanks Sue Lyon-Jones for link in comments!)


You are free to embed any video from YouTube, Vimeo, WatchKnowLearn, etc. on your blog or website as long as it gives you the embed option.

That being said, you (or your students) can’t necessarily use parts from videos on YouTube (or other sources) to make mashups or as part of another video. Be sure to have permission to use any video that you are cutting, making changes to, or adding to a project.

Curriculum and Text

Wikipedia – Quote away (with a link back) to any information you find on Wikipedia

Curriki – An open curriculum community

Collaborize Classroom Library – A growing resource for discussion questions, lesson plans, and more

You won’t be able to add student resources from most textbook companies or purchased curriculum – so be careful and make sure you have permission before doing so!

Related Posts and More Info on Copyright

How To Attribute Copyrighted Works

Larry Ferlazzo’s Best Lists: Learning about copyright, best places for images, and best places for audio

Answering Reader Questions

(Edit: 2/22/2012 – This section was added to include responses to comments and tweets we’ve received since publishing the post)

In private or for-profit institutions, how can we use images and video, if at all? Is it even okay to use YouTube videos in class? What about online articles? Is there a difference between a class of paying students and a training delivered to teachers?

First, any images, videos, or content under a Creative Commons license will let you freely use the material with your student, you just may not be able to turn around and sell any changes you make. Any video on YouTube should be fine for showing in class, and if an image is on the web, you can always display the website that contains the image – where the line is drawn is on copying that image and pasting it on your own blog or website.

Can the onus not be placed on those who post these potential classroom materials, to make it clear who can and can´t or used for and not used for, surely this would be the least time consuming option.

Excellent point! Awareness of copyright and the importance of website owners to make it clear their licenses is improving. I think sticking to trusted sources and using filtered searches is the safest option.

If you can’t use images from the internet why is it that google can group all the images together for people to use?

Interesting thought for sure. Website owners can ask Google not to index their sites and images with a quick code. For bloggers, under Settings > Privacy, users can do the same thing. Not sure that really answers your question though 🙁

Is there a straightforward way to get the permission needed to use a ‘clip’ from a you tube video?

I’ve seen people leave a comment on the YouTube post, but there is no guarantee you’ll get a response.

Some YouTube videos are licensed under a Creative Commons license, and there is an advanced search filter on YouTube that would let you search for these. If you find one, you could use it without permission as long as you follow what the license allows (ie. provide attribution and not make money on the project).

What about the LIBRARY!?

Not so much a question, but Elijah left an excellent comment down below remind us that this is exactly why our libraries can be such valuable resources. Libraries have access to tons of licensed materials and librarians are specially trained to help us navigate the difficult copyright laws. Thanks, Elijah, for the tip!

When I get permission to post something that’s been copyrighted, am I supposed to share it a certain way so others that I have permission to use?

The answer here really depends on the license of the original content and the agreement you have with the original owner. Most of the time a link back to the original works perfect. The location of the link could be in an image caption, in the text itself, or at the end of your piece (like the “References” section of a formal paper).

Maybe APA/MLA/etc. should come out with a set of web publishing guidelines that include citations and reference lists! How would something like that even get started?

Can students read published books aloud, record themselves & publish recording on class blog?

The answer to this is probably not 🙁

However, many books are in the public domain – including most books written before the 1930s. These are all of the free books you see in the e-reader stores. Students would be free to record themselves and publish any book in the public domain. It should say somewhere near the beginning of the book if it is in the public domain (where copyright and publisher information usually goes).

What Do You Think?

Have we missed any important tips or good sites to find resources that are free to use?

Let us know in the comments below and we will be sure to add it to the post!

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208 thoughts on “The Educator’s Guide to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

  1. I came across your article by accident but it has helped me alot. I’ve got a question and I hope you can help me.
    I’m helping creating a textbook for grade 5 learners, science and technology, all the resources and icons that have to be used must be FREE because the books are going to be distributed through out the schools. I have taken a look at that you gave it has some of the icons i need, but I’m unsure if i can use it for the purpose i need it for. If you can help me any way i would highly appreciate it.

    1. Hi Natasha, you need to check with your publisher. Most publishers have strict guidelines for including images and content in books; and may require release forms to be signed to protect themselves from potential copyright infringements.

  2. Hi. Great article! My question pertains to material that isn’t being published. I want my students to make a music video in my video editing class. I will purchase the songs through Amazon, and the students will create videos to go along with them. They won’t be published anywhere. I will view them, grade them, and then delete most of them although a few I will probably want to keep as examples to show future classes). Since I will be purchasing the songs, can I do this project? My kids are very excited about the idea.

    1. Hi Kat. Thanks for the question. I would think this would be OK. As long as the videos are not being published or distributed anywhere, then I think there is not much of an issue.

    2. Hi Kat, this shouldn’t be an issue. It is only a problem when content is shared online or if someone tries to sell content using copyright content.

    3. It is likely that the students will publish their own videos, which may lead to problems with the song or lyrics. Even though you may know the regulations, they should also obey them – and shared videos will be difficult for the students to control.

  3. I think you missed an important area–about teachers posting student work to a website. I believe it is copyrighted and would need permission of parent to post, correct?

  4. WingClips and ClipShout provide movie clips from major Hollywood movies that can be shown in the classroom or auditorium. But it isn’t free.

  5. Hi,

    A lovely space and a lot of reading on copyright. I work for a language school and lots of teachers work here. Do you have a copy of rules for copyright-for example.using images from the internet, youtube or videos from websites, etc.

    Thanks in Advance,


  6. What a great post. Thank you for the wealth of resource links you provided. I see that you originally wrote this post over two years ago, so thank you for keeping the conversation going. This is much needed information as we continue to teach students to be responsible users of technology & online resources.

  7. Great post, thank you! But, I’m hoping you can answer a question for me or point me in the right direction. I use children’s books such as Frederick by Leo Lionni, in my classroom. Children have to buy the books, but I print a packet that contains comprehension questions and vocabulary based on the contents of the book. Is that legal or illegal? The title of my packet is the same as the title of the children’s story. I appreciate your time in giving me a response. Lorena

    1. Hi Lorena, it sounds like your packet would be for education use and would be just fine. I’m sure the author’s like that you require students to purchase the books 🙂

  8. Can you do a specific post on what exactly is fair use for for-profit educational institutions? Fair use for non-profit educational institutions is far more straight forward and there are many guides on the internet. I have not however, been able to find a specific guide for for-profit educational institutions.

  9. I am building a site around colleges and would like to use the images from college website. It may not be possible to contact each and every college but if I use the images of college and link to college website, is that not enough ?
    This is my site
    When talking about you tube, I do not think it is copyright infringement if you embed the youtube video on your site. Correct me if I am wrong.

  10. I am curious if you do anything with copyright laws and music? I am trying to do an online dance class for profit and am trying to navigate the copyright laws with out having to spend money for the use of the songs…. any resources that would be helpful that you know of? Thank you!

  11. For the part about Fair Use of text, I would add that in addition to providing the citation a teacher should use _always_ use quotation marks around copied/pasted text. It seems like an obvious thing, but a lot teachers don’t do that. It might be a generational thing … it’s mainly the younger teachers who plagiarize like this. They instantly claim Fair Use, which I now like to call the Fair Use Excuse.

  12. If I publish my book through a publisher, is it the publisher’s responsibility to get permission to use an author’s work?

  13. Thanks for all the great info. Trying to find out the legality of using just a few second clip of music (i.e. a single lyric) in a blog just for illustrative or informational purposes. If you are just using a piece of music, are their any different rules?

  14. Great article! Using images from the web is definitely something to be careful with. I’ve used several images from Wikimedia on a few articles I’ve written recently. Some of the attrition text is very long, but I included it beneath the image. Do you know if you can just link to the page on Wikimedia instead of using all the attrition text? I tried to search for information but haven’t been able to find anything yet.

    Lauri Wakefield

  15. I read the license info and couldn’t find any information about hyperlinks I’m needing.

    My question is: If you get your license completed and online (music), then decide to use a different link (not the once you used on the 1st license), will the Creative Commons page allow you to change/insert a new link where the old one was?

  16. Hello,
    Could a professor post a 1 min. clip excerpt from a commercial movie in a private university YouTube channel for an online course he is teaching? I would believe this would be fair use as it is for educational purposes, but the fact the students pay to access the content through the private university YouTube channel is what has made this issue murky. Here is my case for fair use and the context the prof uses the movie clip:

    1. Using copyright material for illustration or example
    2. Copying, reposting, and recirculating a work or part of a work for purposes of launching a discussion
    3. Also, in my personal opinion, posting this min. or so edited clip in a 40 min. lesson is in no way competing in the market place with the original work. If anything the excerpted clip is encouraging the viewers to rent/purchase the original copy much in the same way a trailer does online, in theaters, or on television.

    Am I missing something? Thank you for any comments/advice.

  17. Dear Ronnie Burt thank you for you article, as I found this interesting.

    I am still slightly confused. Please can you help me fully understand the Creative Commons license videos on you tube. Does this mean we can use some clips from the Creative Commons license videos? which I would like to add in my research videos I make.

    When I do the advanced search filter on YouTube, it shows me 100’s of videos, but nothing about Creative Commons license videos?
    Can I use video clips for research and education, to make a non profit video by using the FAIR USE NOTICE: without permission?


  18. Hello there,
    Very nice post. One question: if I found a pdf book and I don’t print it but refer my students to read it online where the pdf version is, would that be ok? What’s troubling me is the fact that I charge for this course, very litte, but still… I charge them. This book would be discussed throughout the course. I am really careful and respectful of these things but someone hinted that if it was on pdf in the internet I should be fine as long as we don’t print it or charge especifically for the book. Could you please clarify that for me? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jenny

      I think you are fine as long as you link to the location of the PDF only. Where publishers have issues is when you upload the copyrighted content directly to your website.

  19. Hello!

    I know this is an old post but I had a question regarding creating a video vlog. Say you are compiling news from different resources/stories & other tips in which you present the information in a video and even cite your sources either. Would this be o.k. or would you still need to get permission from the resources?

    Thanks for your help!

  20. Is it legal to post news clips from fox, cnn etc?

    Is it legal to post video montages or mash ups, of a bunch of different movie scenes from one movie or television show, mixed together with an overlaid music track? What if you don’t get permission for the music?

  21. Hi,
    I have question and would appreciate if you could answer it. I am going to write the lyrics of the song ond ask them to listen to Youtube to fiil in the blanks but I will give a linkg from Youtube. Does this still need permission? Many thanks,

    1. The thing you’re copying is the song lyrics, and if this is a scholarly use, among other factors, then you can make a fair use argument for doing so. Your student’s listening to YouTube is a non-issue.

  22. Hi

    I would like to know, can you use articles from different websites and upload it onto your site. The article and image would be referenced/hyperlinked to the original source. So the original source would be given full recognition.

    Is this legal?

    1. Legal or not, it isn’t a good idea. Being “legal” would depend on if the person gives you permission or not to re-post. But pasting content from somewhere else is bad for search engine rankings and bad for many other reasons. You’re better off writing a short post on your own with a summary and a link to the original content.

    2. Unless the person who wrote the articles has licensed it for re-use, then it isn’t legal, I’m afraid. Copying other people’s work without permission is copyright infringement, and giving recognition may not stop you getting into trouble over doing so – especially if you copy things written by people who make a living from writing.

      As Ronnie says, it is much better to write your own articles, or provide a short summary. Alternatively, you could copy articles from sources that do grant permission to re-use or adapt them, such as Wikipedia.