Navigating Copyright in Moving Courses Online

Rapidly shifting your course from in-person to online

There are a lot of pedagogical and technical issues that make the shift from in-person to online teaching challenging, but copyright is not a big additional area of worry and the libraries are here to help.

Recording video of yourself, live-casting lectures, etc.


If it was legal to show slides in class, it is likely legal to show them to students via live video conferencing or in recorded videos.  This may be a surprise if you have heard that there is a big difference between class lecture slides and online conference slides – but the issue is usually less offline versus online, than a restricted versus an unrestricted audience. As long as your new course video is being shared through course websites limited to the same enrolled students, the legal issues are fairly similar.

Many instructors routinely post a copy of their slides as a file for students to access after in-person course meetings, which also likely doesn’t present any new issues after online course meetings.

In-lecture use of audio or video

Here, the differences between online and in-person teaching can be a bit more complex. Playing audio or video off of physical media during an in-person class session is 100% legal at UW-Madison under a provision of copyright law called the “Classroom Use Exemption”. However, that exemption doesn’t cover playing the same media online. If you limit audio and video use for your course to only the content directly necessary for your teaching purpose, you may be able to include those in lecture recordings or live-casts under the copyright provision called fair use (see section below).

Where to post your videos

You can upload your video to Kaltura MediaSpace and make it available to your students through your Canvas course.

Posting video to YouTube, and the same basic legal provisions apply. However, it is more likely that videos posted on YouTube will encounter some automated copyright enforcement, such as a take-down notice, or disabling of included audio or video content. These automated enforcement tools are often -incorrect- when they flag audio, video, or images included in instructional videos because they fail to account for fair use.

Course readings and other resources

Maybe, by mid-semester, your students have already gotten access to all assigned reading materials. As always, the Libraries’ Course Reserves service can help with getting things online – linking to Libraries’ subscription resources, finding ebooks where available, and more.

If you want to share additional materials with students yourself as you revise instructional plans, keep in mind some simple guidelines:

Your best choice is to provide students with links to publicly available or library-licensed resources

The Library website is the portal to all of our collections and materials, digital and physical. Below is a list of helpful places to start in your search for instructional content. Most subscription content will have DOIs or other “permalink” options, all of which should work even for off-campus users.

  • Library Catalog for materials with online access including e-books, streaming audio or video, and other online resources.
  • Top 10 database list provides you with access to the top used databases on campus for accessing digital articles, videos, and more.
  • Research Guides include resources related to a specific subject, topic, or type of source.
  • Special Access to Online Resources in Response to COVID-19: Many publishers and content providers have temporarily unlocked some of their resources to support remote research, teaching, and learning during this period of disruption.

It can be OK to share copies of resources you have

Making copies of materials for students (by downloading and uploading files, or by scanning from physical documents) can be problematic for “all rights reserved” copyright-protected resources, but may still be acceptable practice as a “fair use” (see section below).

Get help from library staff

If you are unable to find a way to link to a digital version, don’t have access to a copy of the material, or are unsure your copy would qualify as a fair use, the libraries can help! We will do additional searches for digital versions available online or for purchase and can often find print versions of materials that may be scanned.

For help with this or any related question complete and submit this Course Content Support Form.

Multimedia viewing/listening

Showing an entire movie or film or musical work online may be a bit more of an issue than playing it in class – but there may be options for your students to access it independently online. You may also be able to rely on fair use to share some audio or video (see section below).

In addition, the libraries have quite a bit of licensed streaming audio and video content, which you are welcome to use in your online course.

Fair Use

Fair use is a flexible limitation on copyright which enables use of copyrighted material without permission under certain circumstances. Determining whether or not a particular use is fair involves assessing four characteristics of the use and judging if, on balance, the use qualifies as fair. See the libraries’ resource on Deciding to Rely on Fair Use for more specific information.

At UW-Madison, instructors make their own determination about whether fair use permits them to copy and distribute materials. Library staff can help you understand the relevant issues. Contact Carrie Nelson or use the Course Content Support Form with questions or for more information.

Not able to connect students to something?

If you haven’t found a free or licensed version of the material you planned to assign and don’t feel comfortable relying on fair use, library staff may be able to suggest alternative content that is already available online publicly or through library subscriptions. Contact your subject specialist librarian or submit the Course Content Support form for help.

The Libraries may also be able to help you seek formal copyright permissions to provide copies to students, but it can be difficult to get permission on short timelines.

More Questions? Need help?

Contact Carrie Nelson for further information or assistance.

Much of this page is adapted from “Rapidly shifting your course from in-person to online” by Nancy Sims, University of Minnesota Libraries, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.