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Copyright and fair use

Information about the collections, services and tools available from the Boston College Libraries to support faculty teaching online courses.

Course Materials and Fair Use

copyright symbolCanvas and Library course reserves each provide a password-protected environment to allow posting of curricular materials for enrolled students. 

Boston College policies for use of Canvas and Library course reserves comply with U.S. Copyright Law, and are developed in accordance with the American Library Association guidelines for Applying Fair Use in the Development of Electronic Reserves Systems and the  Association of Research Libraries' Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries.

Principle One of the Code states that “It is fair use to make appropriately tailored course-related content available to enrolled students via digital networks.”

Fair use can be applied to all types of copyrighted materials such as text, images, audio, or video, as long as the material is legally acquired. The fair use exception to the copyright holder’s exclusive rights requires a flexible balancing test based on the particular context in each instance. A good faith effort must be made to assess overall whether a use is fair by considering

  • the character of the use,
  • the nature of the work to be used,
  • the amount used in proportion to the whole and
  • the impact on the market for the work. 

Educational use favors a fair use outcome, but satisfies only the first factor. The following have become standard practice to assist a fair use determination:

  • Avoid posting content primarily marketed for use in courses (textbooks or workbooks, for instance).
  • Terminate students’ access to the course material when the course is over.
  • Embed links in a password protected environment restricted to a class, such as a Canvas course site.
  • Accompany links with bibliographic information acknowledging the source, and a caution against using or sharing the media inappropriately.
  • Use only the amount of the material needed to accomplish the educational objective.
  • Unless a license has been purchased to stream an entire video, link only to excerpts that are, collectively, no longer than needed to accomplish the educational objective (more than one clip may be used).
  • Provide additional context for the materials (such as associating it with commentary, discussion questions or a related assignment).

In cases where a large mount of material is required and fair use cannot be justified, permission may be needed. The Course Pack Coordinator at the college bookstore will obtain publishers' permissions and create a course pack which students can purchase from the bookstore.

Fair Use Factors

Fair use is a doctrine under copyright law that permits certain uses of a work without the copyright holder’s permission. The fair use of a copyrighted work is an exception to the exclusive rights of a copyright holder. Fair use may be made of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. However, the use of a work for one of these purpose does not automatically qualify as a fair use: a nuanced analysis weighing four factors must be done for each factual scenario.

The copyright statute states that the following four factors must be evaluated to determine in whether a use is fair:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

For more detailed information on copyright, course materials, and fair use, see the Copyright & Scholarship Guide.

What Can You Do?

In the teaching context, it may be useful to take the following steps to help qualify a use as fair and protect yourself and the University from infringement liability:

  • When using third party material, perform a fair use analysis in good faith;
  • Copy as little of the material as you can and still make the use you need;
  • In an on-line setting, first check to see if the Libraries has a license to the material; you may be able to point students to the material in an accessible database;
  • Consider placing material in a password-protected environment that is available only to those enrolled in the class and terminate the students’ access to the material when class is over;
  • Link to the material instead of copying it whenever possible;   
  • If the use cannot be considered fair, ask the copyright holder for permission to use it.

Classroom exceptions may apply and allow your use.