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Open Educational Resources FAQ

This guide is designed to answer some frequently asked questions about Open Educational Resources.


Different kinds of licenses allow you different permissions with regard to using, retaining, and sharing materials.

Creative Commons

The "open" in Open Educational Resources means that OER have licenses that give you a variety of permissions beyond traditional copyright. Usually, OER will come with a Creative Commons license that tells you exactly what the permissions and requirements are.

Creative Commons is an organization that was created to fill the gap between restrictive traditional copyright and what creators actually want. In their own words, "All Creative Commons licenses have many important features in common. Every license helps creators ... retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work — at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures [creators] get the credit for their work they deserve. Every Creative Commons license works around the world and lasts as long as applicable copyright lasts (because they are built on copyright)." (Read more about CC licenses.)

Because there are a variety of Creative Commons licenses, it can take some time to understand the differences among them. Importantly, all Creative Commons licenses allow you to share the licensed material freely with your students as long as you provide attribution.


Copyright can be incredibly confusing, especially in a world where it is very easy to find content online that may have been pirated. It's important to keep in mind that if you don't see an explicit Creative Commons license, the materials you find are copyrighted (as long as they are allowed to be copyrighted). Yes, even if you don't see a copyright statement. Yes, even if you found it for free online. This is because copyright is automatically applied to any work as soon as it is created.

What if the creator provides the content for free?

In that case, the legal way to provide your students with access is to give them a link to where the creator hosts their work. Under copyright, you are not allowed to make copies and distribute them (even electronically) without express permission. But it's perfectly legal to link students to the site where the creator has chosen to share their content.

What if I found content online but not shared by the creator?

This means someone pirated the work. You should not make copies, because you do not have the creator's permission. You should not link to it for your students because the link could stop working at any moment due to the takedown of pirated material. Instead, you need to find how the creator shares their work, or find a different resource to use.

What about public domain?

The restrictions around copyright only last for a certain period of time. This is because copyright eventually expires, and materials are released into the public domain. Once they are in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they like with the material. However, determining if something is in the public domain can be difficult.

  • As of January 1, 2024, anything published in 1928 or earlier is automatically part of the public domain.
  • Certain things cannot be copyrighted, such as ideas, facts, laws, and scientific principles. These are always in the public domain.
  • For everything else, it takes some detective work. See the University of California's public domain page for more information.

Fair Use

Fair use is not a license, but a limitation to a copyright holder's ability to claim copyright infringement. This means that it can be used as a legal defense if you are sued for copyright infringement. Therefore, fair use is something that you have to consider on a case-by-case basis: If I were sued for using this copyrighted work in this way, would the court determine it was actually a fair use?

The courts consider four factors in their determinations of fair use, based on Section 107 of the Copyright Act:

  1. the purpose and character of the use,
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work,
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The Fair Use Evaluator is a tool you can use to help you consider whether your intended use of a copyrighted work is fair.


If you import content into your Canvas course that is shared under a Creative Commons license, you need to ensure you provide proper attribution. This is true no matter which license is applied to the work.

Your attribution should include the title of the work, the author(s) or creator(s) of the work, the source where the work was originally found, and the license under which it is shared. Some folks like using the acronym TASL (title, author, source, license) to remember these components.

For example:

A photo of cupcakes on a serving platter

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the attribution for the image above, we can see the title is "Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco", the author is tvol, the source URL is linked behind the title, and the license is CC BY 2.0.