Initial Publication Date: April 6, 2009

Copyright Pointers for Contributors

A key tenant of many SERC-hosted project is to promote sharing and reuse of teaching material among educators. In order to lower the barriers raised by copyright and the associated confusion over whether "fair use" applies we strive to offer all the materials in our shared collection under a license that explicitly allows for this sort of reuse. This Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license allows for reuse of materials on the site as long as attribution is given to the original author, derivative works are offered up in a similarly free manner, and the material isn't used for a commercial purpose (e.g. included within a textbook that is offered for sale).

To make this happen each contributor must grant us permission to offer their contribution up under this sort of the license. In submitting your materials you are agreeing to this arrangement. It's important to note that we assume all materials you provide (either text or uploaded files and images) are either created by you or are offered up by their original creator in a fashion that is commensurate with this redistribution. If your contribution contains materials created by others (images, documents) you must have the permission of the original author (either explicitly given to you, or given implicitly by virtue of the material being in the public domain, or offered up under some similar license) in order to contribute them to this collection.

What to do about copyright and attribution for materials that will be shared through SERC Sites

Distributing information on the web generally requires the permission of the copyright holder -- usually the original creator. The file upload form will ask for information about the reuse and provenance of materials uploaded to the site. This helps you follow the rules and also helps visitors to this site understand the ways in which they may (legally) use what they find.

If you created the file (and haven't signed away your copyright) then we'd encourage you to select the CC non-commercial attribution share-alike option. You'll retain the copyright to your file and can do as you please with it in the future. Through this choice you are also explicitly allowing others to reuse that file as long as they give you attribution, and don't use it for commercial purposes.

If the file (or content within it) was created by others you'll need their permission. If it predates 1923 or was created by a U.S federal employee (as part of their job) it is likely in the public domain (and we can all do as we choose with it). The original author may also have explicitly stated how it may be reused (e.g. through a creative commons license). You can describe the licensing/reuse situation in the box on the upload form.

Without permission you should not upload the file. There are several options in this case:

  • You can contact the original author to get permission.
  • You can provide a link to (or a description of how to get) the original material rather than uploading it here.
  • You can find a substitute that isn't encumbered by copyright.
  • You can create a substitute yourself. Remember, ideas can't be copyrighted, only particular expressions of those ideas. Of course you'll want to give credit the original author.

The site has more good information about copyright as it applies to academic settings.

What if I'm providing a single file (like a presentation) that has lots of different images/graphs/etc?

In these cases you'll need to make sure that each of the individual elements is something you are allowed to share (e.g. by using images that you've found via the guidelines below). In some cases it may be necessary to find substitutes or remove specific images (e.g. things you've copied out of textbooks) before it's appropriate to share them on the web. Many things that are fair use to include in a presentation you're giving to a room full of workshop participants aren't fair use to share with the world via the web.

You'll want to provide attribution for each element within the file (e.g. with a note at the bottom of each powerpoint slide that has an image, or in a single attribution slide at the end) for all those elements you didn't create yourself. When the file is uploaded you'll need to be sure the provenance/acknowledgment information for the file as a whole points people to look inside the file for these details: "This powerpoint developed by Cris Smith except where otherwise noted within the presentation".

Finding images that you can legally use

There a number of strategies for finding images you can use in your web pages without violating copyright law. Keep in mind that by default you have to assume that any image you find on the web is copyrighted and can not be used unless there is an explicit indication that it can be. So the trick is to find images where someone has gone to the trouble to be explicit about how you may reuse their image.

  • Use images you've taken or created.
  • Public domain images such as government agencies, although please check the agency website for use guidelines and proper attribution format.
  • Search image archives which provide clear guidance on how each image may be reused. Some good sources:
    • Wikipedia --most images in wikipedia will give you explicit information about how they may be reused if you look at the image detail page (just click on the image to get there). Many of the images are in the public domain, or offered under a variety of creative commons licenses.
    • Creative Commons Directory of images archives thousands of sites which offer images under various creative commons licenses.
    • Flickr Many images on this photo archiving site are offered under useful licenses. You can use the advanced search to limit yourself to creative commons licensed photos.
    • Wikipedia's public domain image page Another directory of sites which have images with clear reuse information.

Of course just because you've found an image on one of these pages doesn't mean you're free to use it as you like. You'll have to abide by whatever restrictions they've indicated. In most cases you'll need to provide attribution (putting that in an image caption is usually a good solution). For images that allow reuse with attribution but aren't clear who you should give credit to it's normally sufficient to provide a link to the site where you found the image. In all cases you should be careful when uploading the file to provide accurate information in the provenance and reuse fields of the upload dialog about where the image came from and how others may reuse the image.


What did all that mean? Questions and Answers

Does this mean I'm giving up my copyright/ownership of what I contribute?

No. Contributors to these collections retain their copyright of the things they contributed. They are free to do whatever they like with their materials (e.g. including it in a textbook for sale). The license contributors are agreeing to simply outlines the limits of what we can do with the materials (and by extension what people who find the materials through the collection can do,without have to go back to the author and ask for broader permissions).

Can I include the funny cartoon/useful figure I always use with my students? I copied it out of a book, but I'm an educator and that's fair use isn't it?

Probably not (unless you drew the cartoon/useful figure yourself). While it may be fair use to use some copyrighted materials in the context of your own classroom, it's much less clear once you start distributing the material beyond your own students. Please don't upload those sorts of materials to this site. Often you can find substitutes unencumbered by copyright or simply provide a link to the original material (or a description of how to get a hold of it) rather than including the material itself.

But I gave attribution to the original source. Doesn't that mean I can include it?

Unfortunately not. While notions of academic honesty and the importance of attribution for establishing the intellectual provenance of work are central to academic work they have no bearing when it comes to copyright (at least in the U.S.). If you don't have permission from the copyright holder citing them (regardless of how accurately and prominently you do it) won't magically give you permission.