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!

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

  1. What are the rules regarding commentary on copyrighted material?

    For instance, if i were critiquing someone on YouTube, or needed to show proof by taking screenshots of pictures or other media having existed on a website for purposes of educating and journalism?

  2. Hello
    Are there any laws regarding forwarding private emails?
    Is it copyright infringement?
    And privacy?

  3. I collect autographs of various sports events. I purchased a poster of the Masters Golf winners. The company who created this poster has been out of business for 15 years. I have recently obtain the living winners to autograph their winning photo. The original poster has the photo’s of the winners on the front side and detailed information about that year and the top ten finishers. After collecting a few more autographs I wanted to make a copy of the front side of the poster with all the autographs that I have obtained over the last three years. I had planned to make a limited number of copies (5) for sale. I have tried to find information on this company to see if I could do this however as I stated above they have been out of business for 15 years. Currently a company makes the front side of the card only for the years after this company has gone out of business, but not the back side and then sell the cards to others who sell on ebay. Making a copy of this poster, now with the autographs would this be legal? Thank you in advance for a possible answer.

    1. Hi Ted, unfortunately I don’t have the answer to your question. Out of my scope of knowledge.

  4. I have read that you can use youtube videos in the class but you cannot edit them or do anything that changes the, but my question is, what happens if you use in with Ted-Ed or Edpuzzle. There are many tools available now to fix the classroom that work editing this videos. Is this Ok???

  5. I teach social studies in a computer room. I found online textbooks that other school districts use. On their school district websites they give the id and password to log onto their online account. Can I use this info to log on and log my students on? It is right there out in the open.

  6. I was wondering, how about fractions of less then 5 seconds from a film or trailer made into gif? (moving image)
    and also thumbnail size for none commercial use. Some websites offer that possibility to make these gifs.
    Would that be copyright infringement?

  7. Hello,

    Thank you for all of the info! I have a question that hasn’t been answered though. If I have a food blog where I show people how to incorporate meatless products into their meals, am I allowed to write the product ingredient I use for the recipe? For example, if I used Company X’s Beefless Soy Crumbles, am I allowed to include that on my ingredients list for the recipe?

    Thank you!

  8. Ronnie sorry for asking the same question again. My previous question was probably misunderstood and confused with fair use. What I want to know is as a user of copyrighted photo and video, what documented proof do I have, to produce in future if required. As for example I find a creative common attribution 2 licensed image. I use it. Then the owner of the image changes the creative common, and charges me for copyright violation. How do I prove that the image was initially a creative common image?

  9. I once got permission from a publisher to post certain parts of a textbook in our closed course online, because the text is out of print, so there is no other way to provide the material. However, I was told I needed to strip out all of the artwork, because the publishing company had contracted for that from outside sources and did not themselves have the right to distribute beyond the published text.

  10. I didn’t see a specific comment about my issue:
    I work for a non-profit, private university. We have a course text for our graduate level biochemistry class. However, some images for teaching the material in our course comes from non-course text resources, typically other textbooks. We always site the image source (e.g., Voet and Voet, 3rd edition, 2008, page XYZ). The images are used in power point slides and also in student lecture notes, which are all posted on our online Course Management System (only available to our students). Is using some images from a non-course textbook in this capacity acceptable under fair use?

    Our school cannot afford to pay copyright fees for these images and all the text image sources cannot be required, as that would be cost-prohibitive. There are several faculty members teaching in the course and we all have differing views on what image provides the best illustration for explaining a process in biochemistry.

    Thanks for your help – there seem to be many conflicting opinions on this specific issue.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Unfortunately the scenario you mention is both common and complicated. A lot of it has to do with the source and how it was acquired. It sounds like from a textbook, if your school purchased and owns the book, would be a legitimate use of fair use.

      The best source I’ve found on this topic is here, in hopes that it helps: 🙂


  11. I have a question regarding copyright violation with respect to google adsense approval. If a post an article from a well known magazine hard copy, of which none of the version is available on the internet, would it be copy right violation, how did google adsense will detect the article is copyrighted, and if i use extract text from the scanned image, will google detect this that i have OCR Text from that specific scanned image available over internet and posted as text on my website( as if this text will online available on my website, no duplicate text version on web)

  12. Thank you so much or the valuable information. The article was really helpful. But there is one copyright question I never find an answer to. I am sure you can help me in this.
    Many websites allow download and usage of free footages (say with proper credit sometimes) for short films etc. But these days short film festivals require the producer to submit proof of permission to use copyrighted items. What document do I submit in these cases? Also if the website goes off the internet someday, what proof do I have in future?

    1. Hi Thatcher,

      It was Sue Waters who stated that you aren’t covered by fair use online (I’m assuming your last comment was addressed to me? 🙂 .

      Fair use is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of copyright law. It is not an automatic right that educators enjoy, and it will not protect you from being sued. Fair use is merely a defence that can be used in court if you are unlucky enough to find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

      Speaking personally, I take the view that there are some situations where fair use *might* apply to online sharing, if a work is transformative enough to take it well away from the original audience and purpose. I think it would be a mistake to assume fair use applies in a situation like this though, for the reasons I’ve already stated.

      Apologies if this link has already been posted (it’s a long thread :-)) but this article gives a good overview of fair use and the four factors that are used to determine whether or not it applies:

      As for sharing things on private spaces, as Sue Waters points out, media files uploaded to wikis sometimes get indexed. Furthermore, all it takes is for one person to link to a document in a private space for it to become public currency…

      1. Hi Sue,
        Thank you again. This is a great ongoing discussion about an important topic and I really appreciate your thoughts. I’m certainly not a lawyer but I have an education in the topic and I am the copyright liaison at my institution.
        One of my favorite videos on fair use is from the ALA:

  13. I am a school librarian and some teachers have asked me to create a wiki and post some pdfs of varies pages from the textbook and a couple websites. The wiki is private, so only the students and teachers may see the resources. Am I covered under fairuse?

    1. Hi Susan

      You aren’t covered by Fair Use online. If the textbook is copyright then uploading pages from the text book is uploading copyright material. While the wiki is private it doesn’t mean media files are private. It depends on how their system handles media files. Information from websites depends on how much content you use, what the content is and if they have indicated the copyright that applies to the website.

      My personal opinion is we should be modelling use of content even on private websites to help educate teachers and students on the requirements.

      Sue Waters
      Support Manager
      Edublogs | CampusPress

      1. Hi Sue,
        I’m not sure it’s true to say you’re not covered by fair use online. It is a higher risk, often much higher, when working in public spaces such as the open internet. I can’t help but recoil from absolute statements 🙂

        1. Take your point, Thatcher and I’m not a fan of absolute statements either.

          Where scanned pages of textbooks are concerned though, I think there is a strong case to be made that sharing them online falls outside the scope of the fair use provisions.

          Uploading scanned pages of commercially published educational materials provides no added value, as they are being shared ‘as is’ with original purpose in mind, to be used in exactly the same way. This fails to satisfy the first (and arguably most important) criteria for claiming fair use, which is that the use is transformative.

          The uploader is also potentially depriving publishers and authors of income they might otherwise have earnt from textbook sales by infringing their copyright, thus ruling out factors two and four of the ‘fair use’ test. That leaves us with factor three, the proportion of the original work used. As a scanned copy of a page from a text book duplicates the original work verbatim, that excludes any grounds for arguing that the amount taken from the original work was measured and proportionate.

          1. I was responding to was your statement that “you are not covered by fair use online”, which is not true in the absolute.

            Your argument is certainly sound based the context you provided. In the comment, Ms. Mullen was referring to an online space that was private, and I’m not sure the use is or isn’t transformative as we don’t know the use of the information as it may relate to a larger activity.

  14. Does Youtube have a sign for right protected videos to show the users not to include it in their projects. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    1. Sadly not. YouTube will allow anyone to share or embed any video, unless the author has marked it as “Private”. Even unlisted videos can be shared and embedded into blog posts. If you are looking to add create video and want it protected from sharing in un authorised places, I woudl recommend usign Vimeo, since they offer privacy settings to allow you to limit what sites it can be shared on.

  15. I have two questions: 1. Is it a copyright violation for students to use their cell phone cameras to take photos of a few pages in a book to use for writing essays? (Proper citations are provided in the paper.) 2. Is it copyright violation to transfer purchased video tapes to DVD’s for fair use in the classroom?

    1. 1. It is generally ok to copy for private use, using a camera or other device. It’s also ‘scholarly’ and ‘research’, two areas explicitly covered by fair use, as long as the other factors are considered, especially amount used, which from your example is miniscule.
      2. What you are doing format-shifting (not streaming), and it is generally fair use as long as you own the original legally and are doing it because the old format is no longer viable. You should also consider whether buying the new format (DVD) is reasonably priced. If you can get another in the ‘current’ format for $10 bucks you should consider doing so.
      This is our playlist of over 50 video about copyright in the educational realm:

  16. I am a reporter for a student-run newspaper. We recently published a story about receiving grant money, and used an appropriate headshot of the teacher related to the article (we had the picture on file). The teacher is very upset with the paper’s staff, claiming that we need his permission to use his picture…is this true?

    1. Hi Jessica, it isn’t necessarily a copyright issue. Some people are very sensitive to how photos of them are used. If you were using a student photo you would need to check their parents had signed consent forms for photos to be used. As part of good practice it is worth considering asking someone to sign a consent form if there isn’t an existing form.

  17. i am a teachere nd i hve created a facebook group page for my history students. is it illegal or an infringement to post a website link or a video link on youtube or a powerpoint presentation created by someone else for the students to look at to enhance the topics taught in class?

  18. Even though it’s free but I like to give the creators some credit and appreciate what they have done.

  19. This site answers so many questions! It’s great. I am still looking for an answer for the following situation: If I point my students to a particular website via the site’s URL, or youtube video with a “share” link, is that the same as embedding the video or material? Is it legal? How do I attribute that?

    1. Hi Robert,

      You can share YouTube videos freely without having to worry about copyright restrictions. In fact, unless the author has disabled embedding, you can feel free to embed their YouTube videos on your website according to the standard YouTube license.

      Dan Leeman
      Edublogs Support

  20. If I purchase an audiobook, share it on the class private page, have the teacher take it down a few months later, then delete it, would it be illegal/copyright even though I purchased it? Please respond soon.

    1. You would have to look into “Fair Use” for specifics regarding the amount of the audiobook that you could share. Even on a private website, sharing the book (distributing it) is illegal unless given permission by the copyright holder.

      Dan Leeman
      Edublogs Support

  21. Where I work, we use a lot of free activity guides on our site…When I find these downloadable activity guides, they are usually copyrighted and the copyright or website where I found them gives permission for the works to be used for educational purposes only and are not to be resold. My question is, as long as the website that published the original work states it can be used and shared for educational purposes, am i allowed to post these on our website as long as i give the original person credit and I am NOT selling the guides-i simply post them for librarians and educators to use for FREE to educate the children.

  22. Hello. Great and insightful article, however I’m still a little troubled and need clarification. I’m in the process of creating an educational mobile application for choir students and teachers. Is it illegal or does it go against copyright publishing laws and such for a music instructor to take a picture of the sheet music and upload it to their profile on this app? The students would then search for the teacher name and retrieve the music sheet from the teacher’s profile. This app is just allowing teachers and students to connect and now students are able to practice their music just quickly opening an app and not misplacing sheet music to take home. If it’s for educational purposes would that be okay?

    1. Hi Marissa,

      I’m in the sheet music business too, so it’s fun bumping into you on here 🙂 I provide instrumental sheet music at

      Yes, taking a picture of copyrighted music would be illegal as long as the piece of music is copyrighted. This would be a form of replication/duplication that is prohibited unless given consent by the copyright holder. That being said, some companies do “get away” with allowing users to do the uploading of material – i.e. Chromatik is or was letting users upload sheet music to their app, feigning ignorance like Napster letting users upload mp3 files.

      But I would find a new approach, as taking images of copyrighted music would be an infringement of the composer’s/publisher’s copyright. I’d be happy to discuss more with you about music and copyright.