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Digital education

Confused about Copyright?

21 June 2014

by Allan Theophanides

It’s safe to say that most people find copyright extremely confusing. With so many resources available just a search and a click away (and seemingly for free!) it’s very tempting to use any images, videos or audio clips in a presentation or document without even thinking where it has come from, and most importantly, who owns it.

In this week’s blog we will:

  • give you a ‘friendly’ introduction to Copyright, how it works, and how not to get ‘caught out’ by using materials illegally, particularly online.
  • give you a small tool that we’ve created to help you decide whether you need to seek permission for using materials.
Copyright Puzzle
Copyright Puzzle – Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan under Creative Commons

‘What actually is Copyright?’

Copyright law in the UK is mainly derived from the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and was designed to protect original works from being duplicated, particularly for monetary gain. Copyright licensing is effective immediately on the creation of an original work and the creator does not have to register his/her rights to the work before it’s protected.  This means that anything that you create is also automatically covered by Copyright law.

“Copyright applies to any medium. This means that you must not reproduce Copyright protected work in another medium without permission. This includes, publishing photographs on the internet, making a sound recording of a book, a painting of a photograph and so on.”  Intellectual Property Office (IPO) []

‘When I’m browsing online, how do I know if something is Copyright protected or not?’

All images, videos and audio online are protected by Copyright and apart from in very specific instances, permission to use material needs to be obtained before you can use them.  Read on for further information about the exceptions and what you can do to use Copyright material.

‘I’ve found some really useful material online to use in my teaching and/or research, what should I do?’

As mentioned previously in order to be able to use material protected by Copyright law, permission usually needs to be sought from the owner, author or publisher but this can be difficult to obtain, especially without incurring any costs.

There are however situations where permission does not need to be obtained but these are very specific and very limited.  Within a University context in order to decide whether you need to obtain permission before using copyright material in your work you need to consider these 3 principle questions:

1.  Is your work part of your own study/research, and if it is research is it ‘personal’ or ‘commercial’?

The IPO states that:  “You are allowed to make single copies or take short extracts of works when the use is for research that you do not stand to make any money from (whether it be personally or institutionally), or for private study, for educational courses or even for use in connection with a hobby.” The Intellectual Property Office []

The ‘limited use’ or ‘fair dealing’ clause which covers this activity is only allowed when using literary, dramatic, musical, artistic works.  The terms of use regarding these clauses still requires ‘sufficient acknowledgement’ of the original material by including complete references to the source which is common practice in Academia anyway.

2.  If not for study/research, is your work going to be used for teaching and if so who is going to be accessing your material, and how?

There are a couple of exceptions in using Copyright material for education, however these are extremely limited and in most cases are not applicable within the University teaching environment. The only IPO guidelines that apply to HE activity state:

“exceptions apply to schools, universities and other educational establishments. These are:

  • Copying a literary (written), dramatic (theatrical performance), musical or artistic work (paintings, drawings, photographs, etc) in the course of teaching as long as a reprographic process is not used.
  • Performing, playing or showing copyright works in a school, university or other educational establishment for educational purposes. However, it only applies if the audience is limited to teachers, pupils and others directly connected with the activities of the establishment.”

Again, ‘sufficient acknowledgement’ via referencing must be provided with using any material under these conditions.

It must be stressed however that duplicating Copyright material using anything like a photocopier, fax, scanner, camera, etc. is prohibited without permission from the owner.  Even if it’s on behalf of an educational institution for the purpose of non-commercial teaching.  Consequently the University purchases licenses via Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) and Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) to allow for the duplication of some Copyright materials for teaching resources.  Contact the Compliance Team for further information.

3.  If not for teaching is your work going to be used solely for an examination?

The IPO do state that using Copyright protected material for setting exams (both physical and online) is permitted (with appropriate referencing), apart from photocopying sheet music for a performance based exam.

It’s important to remember that if the form or circumstances change with your work then the copyright restrictions may change as well. For example:

  • If your research is non-commercial and referenced appropriately you can use Copyright material, however if it becomes commercial research because of monetary gain then you need to obtain permission to continue to use the resources you did create yourself.
  • If you show a video in a lecture whilst it’s being filmed for archive/revision purposes, the capture of the video cannot be used without permission from the owner of the film.
  • If you used Copyright images in an exam paper and want to give your students past papers either online or in printed form you would need to obtain permission to use the images as they become teaching materials rather than exam material.

So please bear this in mind when curating your material both initially, but also in future if the media/format, audience or income generation level changes.

‘I would like to use some material I’ve found for a presentation for my teaching, but I also want to place my work online for my students.  How do I obtain permission to use this Copyright protected material?’

Placing any material with Copyright protected resources online instantly breaches any Copyright exemptions previously mentioned, consequently you have 3 options:

  1. Contact the author/owner for written permission – if you are successful, you must keep all correspondence for future recollection in case of legal issues.
  2. Check our institutional licences such as CLA and NLA to see whether the material you would like to use can be covered under them.
  3. In terms of an image online, you need to check for any metadata or ownership information and seek permission before using it (unless it’s for an exam).  If none is given then you can use the image for non-profit making teaching activity, but bear in mind that you can be asked to remove the image by the owner at any time.  Personal (i.e. anything other than private study) or commercial usage is prohibited without permission.

As frustrating as it maybe, you should not treat a lack of response as automatic permission to use the material. If you don’t get any response then you can contact the Information Services Legal Compliance Team for advice on copyright matters by emailing

‘I’ve found a great website offering free resources, can I use them?’

Under no circumstances should you automatically trust a site that says their resources are ‘free’, especially if it’s just stated in the web address e.g., etc. Before using any material that isn’t your own check the webpage for specific terms or licensing. If you are unsure please seek further advice from the Compliance Team.

Sometimes sites or publications do permit the re-use of their material, but usually under certain explicit conditions. If so they will either state in the terms in the publication or site itself or a Creative Commons licence may have been applied to the material.

Creative Commons (CC) licensing is still Copyright licensing, but it allows the use of material for different purposes without needing to seek permission. If you find a CC licensed resource, check for any restrictions (e.g. non-commercial use only, open use permitted but without editing, etc.) and for any attribution needed.

Introducing the ELTT Copyright Checker Tool

We hope that we have solved part of the puzzle that is Copyright within the University environment and what you can and can’t do.  Even with the information that we have provided we realise that keeping in mind all of the different questions considerations around Copyright can seem like hard work and almost prohibitive to your teaching.  Consequently we’ve created a Xerte Copyright Checker tool that you can download that should make it easier for you to decide when and how you need to get permission.  Please feel free to use and share!


1 comment
  1. Simon Wood

    Great primer, Allan! And nice example of a CC licensed image to illustrate it.

    One way of massively simplifying copyright issues, in my view, is to be mindful of copyright at the stage at which materials are being chosen – and to go to one of the many great sources of reusable images rather than, say, doing a regular Google (the new Google image search filters make this extra easy now). Obviously that’s a luxury only available for brand new materials, and then when the specific requirements for a piece of media are not too exact. But it does cut down the time involved in being copyright compliant to next to nil if rather than having to find a suitable replacement image, you get an image whose license terms you can easily meet in the first place!

    I adapted some slides from JISC Legal on finding reusable stuff. Some of it’s a little out of date, but it’s mostly still relevant. Finding Free and Legal Media online.

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