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OER - Open Educational Resources

Research, explore, and learn how to use OER materials for instruction and learning.

OER & Copyright

copyright symbol bombOER Protections and Permissions

A big barrier to adoption of OER is incomplete knowledge or misunderstanding of its usage and legality. The most common myths about OER suggest that they are illegal to use and infringe on copyright law. 

This section dispels those myths and provides information on the different types of options for legal use, modification and distribution of workwith emphasis on copyright and Creative Commons. 

Review of these options may help you protect yourself by avoiding potential copyright infringement, as well as make informed choices about the type of work best suited to your purposes.

Types of Protection and Usage Permissions

What is Copyright?

"Copyright is a form or protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works."—U.S. Copyright Office

Visit the U.S. Copyright Office FAQs for more information, including answers to questions like:

  • What does copyright protect?
  • When is my work protected?
  • How long does copyright last?
  • Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
  • Is my copyright good in other countries?

Why Worry About Copyright?

Copyright infringement can occur through purposeful OR accidental use of work without legal permission granted by the original author. Doing soeven if the infringement occurs through insufficient understanding of copyrightmakes you and Compton College alike subject to a number of penalties, such as:

  • payment for attorney's fees and court costs
  • payment to copyright owner for loss of profits (up to $150,000 for intentional infringement)
  • loss of employment
  • jail time

When it comes to copyright, ignorance doesn't excuse infringementeducate yourself to protect yourself!

What is Fair Use?

"Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances."—U.S. Copyright Office

While copying and distribution of works is generally prohibited under U.S. Copyright Law, the Fair Use Doctrine (Section 107 of the Copyright Act) legally permits the free, unlicensed use of copyrighted work when specific criteria are metsuch as when used for teaching or scholarship. The framework for determining situations and uses that qualify as fair use is further outlined in Section 107.

These fair use criteria consist of four areas, commonly known as the four factors of fair use:

  • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • Nature of the copyrighted work
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Determining Fair Use

There is no standard formula or preset percentage of a work that may be used without permission; determination of fair use is performed by courts on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, it is up to each individual to educate themselves and make the most informed determinations possible. 

Use the resources below to help you determine if your use of copyrighted materials qualifies as fair use:

  • Fair Use Evaluation
    This tool allows you to enter your information to better understand if your usage qualifies as fair use. 
  • Fair Use Checklist (PDF)
    Download and/or print this checklist as a reference tool for evaluating your usage to determine if it qualifies as fair use. 
  • Fair Use Index
    This searchable database provided by the U.S. Copyright Office collects court opinions for reference. Use this as a research reference tool to better understand the principles and applications of fair use. 

What is Public Domain?

"A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."U.S. Copyright Office

In short, works within the public domain are not protected under copyright and may be used freely.
Materials are considered under the public domain if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • the copyright has expired; this includes works published in the U.S. before 1923 or works published before 1968 that did not renew their copyright 
  • the copyright owner has intentionally and explicitly permitted it to enter the public domain
  • the copyright owner didn't meet or follow copyright rules
  • the work is produced by an employee of the U.S. government during the course of their employment
  • the work cannot be copyrighted, such as with ideas and common knowledge.

Finding Public Domain Materials

To determine whether a work is in the public domain, it's easiest to just search specifically for works in the public domain or using public domain repositories, such as The Public Domain Review

You can also select Find OER from the navigation menu to search or browse OER collections, some of which include works in the public domain.

What is Creative Commons?

"Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify copyright terms to best suit your needs."
Creative Commons

Creative Commons ultimately expands the reach and access of shared work, allowing creators a way to manage copyright permissions of their work without having to manually grant permission to each individual request. Consequently, use of a Creative Commons license is typically exercised with intention to allow reuse and distribution of content. 

Creative Commons license spectrum chartTypes of Creative Commons Licenses

The types of Creative Commons licenses are listed below from most to least open. Licenses and their descriptions come from the About the Licenses page of Creative Commons.

  • Public Domain Attribution Dedication, CC0 
    Places your work in the public domain and waives all copyright and related rights; allows your work to be copied, modified, distributed or performed for any purpose, without asking permission.
  • Attribution, CC BY
    The most open license: allows others to copy, distribute, remix or perform your work for any purpose, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
  • Attribution Share-Alike, CC BY-SA
    Allows others to copy, distribute, remix or perform your work for any purpose, as long as they credit you for the original creation and license the new work under the same licensing terms.
  • Attribution No-Derivatives, CC BY-ND
    Allows others to copy and distribute your work unchanged for any purpose, as long as they credit you for the original creation. 
  • Attribution Non-Commercial, CC BY-NC
    Allows others to copy, distribute, remix or perform your work for noncommercial purposes only, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike, CC BY-NC-SA
    Allows others to copy, distribute, remix or perform your work for noncommercial purposes only, as long as they credit you for the original creation and license the new work under the same licensing terms.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivatives, CC BY-NC-ND
    The most restrictive license: allows others to copy and distribute your work unchanged for noncommercial purposes only, as long as they credit you for the original creation and license the new work under the same licensing terms.

Creative Commons Licensing Rights

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OER & Creative Commons

The primary purpose of OER is for educational materials to be reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed. However, like all types of intellectual property, OER are subject to copyright law, which can substantially restrict the usage of these works and prevent effective dissemination. Fortunately, Creative Commons licenses allow content creators to legally retain copyright while also broadly sharing permission for use with othersall without the need to individually grant permission to each interested user. This allows creators to reach a wider audience and provides users with a much greater breadth of resources.