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Copyright Guidelines for Online Course Delivery

This guide is designed to provide a brief introduction to the issues related to using material within online learning environments. It is by no means exhaustive and course designers are encouraged to seek advice on any copyright queries they may have as early as possible.

What is copyright?

Copyright protects any piece of original work as soon as it has been recorded either on paper, in an audio recording, on film, or electronically (including on the Web). Copyright exists to allow creators to control the use of their work. It also allows them to benefit financially from their work and enables them to assert their moral rights to be recognised as the author of their piece of work.

How long copyright lasts varies according to the format in which a work has been recorded. In most cases copyright will last for 70 years after the death of the author/creator.

Copyright and e-learning

Copyright applies to all recorded works, which includes information delivered electronically via websites. The reuse of copyrighted work, regardless of the format of the original, is subject to obtaining permission from the rights-holder. This may be the author or creator, or more frequently, the publisher of the material.

When putting together an online course it is therefore important to consider what material will be used from the very outset. As a course designer you are responsible for ensuring that you have permission for the use of any and all third party material within your online module. Gaining permission to use material can take time, so early planning is essential. Below are some guidelines on the use of copyrighted material within e-learning environments.

Practical tips: A number of practical tips have been incorporated into the relevant sections below. Please see also the final section on 'Obtaining permission'.

Using copyright material

1. Source of material

  • Your own work
    If your online course is to consist only of work created by you (lecture notes, reading list, etc.) there is no need for further action with regard to checking copyright. There are some grey areas, the most notable being SLIDES from your own lectures. If the slides contain only material for which you hold the copyright (text written by you, images you have created, e.g. diagrams, photos . etc.) they can simply be added to your online course. If they do contain any third party material (the most common culprit being images) you will need to obtain copyright permission to use materials which belong to other individuals or organisations.
    Practical help: See below for more information on how to obtain copyright and also the section on images for advice on where to find 'free' images.
  • UCL Library Services' Electronic Library
    UCL Library Services provide access to a very significant collection of electronic resources, in particular electronic journals. These resources are available to all registered UCL staff and students, and can be incorporated into online courses. However, it is important to note that it is not permissible to download files from journal providers and store them locally. Instead stable links should be made. Most e-journals will provide instructions on how to do this, or see below.
    Practical help: Library Services can provide advice on how best to link to electronic journal articles. Alternatively, we can create an online reading list for you, which will automatically link to any available full text. Once this has been created you also have the option of maintaining the list yourself. For more information see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/readinglists.shtml
  • Government and international organisations
    The majority of publicly funded bodies allow the re-use of their published materials for educational purposes. It is usually not permitted to download and store pdf versions of these material without permission, instead organisations suggest that links be incorporated into the online learning environment. Please consult an organisation's "copyright" or "acceptable use" policy, which will be available on their website for further information. See also section on "Material from websites" (below) for good practice guidelines.
    Practical help: if you are unsure of an organisations policy, the TLSS will be able to provide advice. Please contact them, providing full details of material you wish to link to.
  • Material from websites
    The ability to link to material on websites is one of the fundamental aspects of the web. While there are no legal considerations when linking to other sites, it is worth bearing in mind the following good practice guidelines:
    1. When linking to a resource available on the web, try to avoid "deep-linking" (linking directly to the material). This by-passes the organisation's homepage, which often provides a context for the material. In addition, deep links tend to be less stable - material is often moved or taken down.
    2. Ensure that links to external sites open in a new browser window. This makes it clear that the student is leaving your course environment to visit another site. This reminds the student that they need to use their critical skills as you (as course tutor) are no longer responsible for the material they are viewing. Taking a copy (by downloading or simply "copying and pasting") to store locally should only be done where it is explicitly stated that this is permissible.
  • Images or text from websites
    It is very easy to find and download useful images/text from the Web. However, all material on the Web is protected by Copyright law. Before copying anything from a website check whether permission is needed. In most cases it will. Terms of use and contact information are usually found in pages entitled .About this site. or similar.
    Practical help: A growing number of resources exist that provide access to copyright cleared images for educational use. For example, try using the Creative Commons search to find images in Flickr.com: http://search.creativecommons.org/
    Alternatively, your Faculty Information Support Officer should be able to recommend appropriate sources for your subject area.
  • Video or sound clips
    It is possible to incorporate audio-visual clips into online course environments. However, copyright permission must be obtained prior to material being made available. If the film/sound recording has been made within UCL or by you there should be no copyright issues, but clearing right to use commercially created audio-visual can be extremely costly. Please bear in mind data protection issues if you are incorporating any recordings you have made that involve other people.
  • Extracts from printed sources
    The UK Copyright Licensing Agency's Licence for HE permits us to digitise extracts from UK and most US published (printed) materials. These extracts can be digitised for a specific course of study. However certain limits apply to how much can be copied.
    Practical help: For further information on this service please refer to the following webpage: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/readings.shtml
Obtaining copyright

Course designers are reminded of the necessity of obtaining copyright permission for any third party material before they make their course available to students. Using copyrighted material without the permission of the owner is an offence under UK law.

Obtaining copyright permission can take time. We recommend that rights-holders are contacted at least 4 weeks before the material in question is needed.

Course designers are also encouraged to maintain a paper trail (virtual or physical) of any correspondence with rights holders regarding the use of their material. This is particularly the case, if a rights holder fails to respond to a request to use their work and the course designer opted to go ahead and use the material.

Please note: Permissions usually expire after 12 months (or one academic session). If you plan to use the material again in future years this should be specified when requesting permission, or permission will have to renewed for each year that the material is used.

Templates for requesting copyright

Two templates are available for requesting to use copyright material. Use of the templates is by no means mandatory, but they do provide an outline of the information that should be provided in a request. They can be downloaded from the UCL Learning Technology pages: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/learningtechnology/legal/copyright/templates.html

These pages also provide more information on copyright and e-learning.


The following resources and services may be useful when planning online courses:

The following are online tools to help you assess potential copyright issues you may encounter when putting together your online course:

  • JISC Web2Rights Project: this project makes available a wide range of tools and resources for those engaging with Web2.0 technologies in their teaching.
  • JISC Collections Online Copyright Activity: a series of scenarios that highlight the copyright issues associated with the use of particular types of resources, e.g. images, recorded television programmes.

Last modified 27 September 2011

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