University of Oregon

Copyright Resources

Copyright issues affect faculty in numerous ways. Among the questions:

  • what rules limit my use of other people's work in my teaching?
  • what is "fair use"?
  • how can I protect my own work?
  • who owns student work?

General Information

The general principle in U.S. copyright law is that every original work is copyrighted by the author as soon as it's fixed in a tangible medium, and that copyright confers to the author several exclusive rights, including the right to make copies, prepare derivative works, publicly display or perform the work, etc. Except when you can claim some particular exemption such as "fair use," you need permission to copy other people's works, or to modify them for your own use.

For general references on copyright in higher education, see for instance:

Fair Use

Just because it's academic doesn't make it fair use. However, the principle of "fair use" is in fact the major limitation on the exclusive rights of a copyright owner. Copyrighted works may be used based on a consideration of four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for the work

For example, making a copy of someone else's work is more likely to be fair use if

  1. it's being done for academic purposes with appropriate citation, and
  2. the material being copied is mostly factual rather than artistic, and
  3. the copy is of a small portion of a larger work, and
  4. the copying is limited to a single copy

So, to be concrete, a brief quotation from someone else's book used in your own book is almost always fair use. Making copies of a journal article for each of your students is very unlikely to be fair use.

Although each of these factors is to be considered, the last is often the most critical. If the copyright owner offers a license for a work, then copying all or a significant portion of it is almost certainly unfair. But there are no simple rules like maximum word counts; you have to apply these factors on a case by case basis.

If you believe your use is a "fair use", it would be a good idea to document your reasoning. Although we aren't lawyers, CET consulting can give you a checklist that you may find useful in deciding if your particular use is "fair."

For more information:

Faculty Ownership

Do you, the faculty member, own copyright or does the university? That depends on whether it's a "work for hire" made as part of your employment, and on any explicit terms in your employment contract. Arguably, any course handout you make is part of the work the university is paying you (an employee) to do, so it owns copyright as a work for hire.

On the other hand, it is common practice in academia for universities not to assert any ownership rights to most course materials. For example, they routinely allow a professor to move to a different university and teach the same course using the same lecture notes and handouts. Maybe this is because the copyright is not seen as having any market value, and hence nobody fights over it. Times are changing, though, particularly in the area of distance ed, and in community colleges where it is more typical to have different people do course preparation and course delivery. At many schools it is now routine for everyone to agree that all course materials are copyright by the university.

If you author a book, the UO may claim copyright, though it will share royalties with you.

At the UO, our contracts reference state law, the "Oregon Administrative Rules" that essentially reiterate the idea that the State owns the copyright in everything you produce as an employee. The State Board has an extensive interpretation of what it thinks the rules are, the "Internal Management Directives." Both can be read at the UO Technology Transfer web site. The IMD introduces yet a new wrinkle -- it claims ownership only to those teaching-related works whose preparation involved more than "incidental use of institutional facilities, funds, staff, and other resources." There's no clear definition of what "incidental" is.

Student Rights

In some cases the course materials include works by students. For example, a course might include a listserv on which students post. In such cases, the student postings are certainly owned by the student, not by the professor or by the institution. Your syllabus should spell out clearly your planned uses of student postings so that you can argue that the students gave you an implied license to use the materials. If you plan to use the student materials beyond the particular course in which the student is enrolled, you should get explicit permission in writing from the student to do so after the course is completed and grades have been turned in. The student can assign copyright to the university; or can assign limited rights to use the material.


Copyright is a complex legal issue. This web page was written by a non-lawyer (JQ Johnson), and does not represent the UO's official legal position on any issue. If you have a specific legal question related to copyright, your dean can refer it to the UO's general counsel, or you can consult your own attorney.


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