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Electronic Course Reserves Guidelines for Instructors

Making copies of materials for online courses requires considering copyright. Unlike putting a physical copy of a book on reserve, when you upload a pdf to a course site (or otherwise share copies with the class) you are making and distributing new copies, and therefore you must consider the copyright implications. These guidelines will help course instructors make informed copyright decisions about their course materials.

It is your responsibility as the instructor of a course to ensure that you are using course materials responsibly and consistent with copyright law.

If you need the MIT Libraries to make a scan of the content for you to upload into course reserves, then the Libraries must agree, through our standard practices, that providing you with the scan is permitted under copyright law in order to provide it.  See the Course Reserves FAQ for more information on requesting scans through the Libraries.

Worry-free content

Some course materials have few or no copyright concerns, these include:

  • Materials not protected by copyright
    • Federal government documents: Documents created by the federal government are not subject to copyright and can be freely used and shared. Examples: Official NASA photos, CIA Factbooks, USGS-authored maps
    • Works no longer protected by copyright because their copyright has expired: Copyright lasts for a limited (if long) period of time. Most works created prior to the early 20th century are in the public domain and may be freely used. Examples: classic literature, some early silent films, classical sheet music.
  • Materials licensed by the MIT Libraries: Most electronic resources available through the Libraries can be included in electronic course reserves.
    • Linking to the electronic content (so that your students can access it directly) is always allowed.
    • Uploading copies of content to a course site (with access limited to enrolled students for the duration of the course) is also permitted for most journal articles and ebook chapters. If you have questions whether this applies to particular content, please contact
  • Openly available content 
    • Linking to content that is openly available on the internet is always allowed and may be the best option for some content. Example: Current news stories not covered by Libraries subscriptions.
    • Openly licensed content: content distributed under a Creative Commons or other similar license which explicitly allows reuse and sharing. Examples: OER textbooks, OA journal articles and monographs.

Fair use guidance

For course materials not covered by the categories above, copyright law also provides for reuse of content without additional permission when the requirements for “fair use” are met. Educational uses are frequently, but not always, a fair use. Fair use is determined by a four-factor statutory test.

General fair use principles

Fair use is designed to be a flexible standard, which is useful but can be frustrating when it doesn’t provide simple answers. Courts have stressed that fair use requires a case-by-case assessment of the facts. Being comfortable with making a fair use analysis is essential to responsibly managing course reserve readings. 

The following general principles apply to the fair use analysis:

  • No single factor is determinative of a fair use outcome, there is no one fact that will, by itself, make a use fair or unfair.
  • All four factors must be examined and weighed together, and the relative importance of each factor may vary between cases.
  • Findings as to one factor influence the weight given to other factors. The first factor, for example, affects the way we think about the third and fourth factors.

The four factors

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
    • This factor strongly favors fair use if your use is transformative, meaning that you are using the work for a different purpose than it was originally created. Example: critical analysis of a novel or film
    • Educational use is also favored under this factor, but the amount used should be narrowly tailored to the pedagogical needs of the course. For course reserves, this also means that reserve materials should be accessible only to students enrolled in the course and only for the course duration.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
    • Highly factual works favor fair use 
    • Published works, meaning works deliberately released to the public by the copyright owner, favor fair use under this factor
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; 
    • Fair use can apply to an entire work, however the fair use argument will be strengthened by only using an amount of the work narrowly tailored to the pedagogical or transformative purpose for the use
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
    • Fair use is favored if your use would not inappropriately interfere the economic value of the work for the copyright holder. Works that are out of print or that cannot easily be licensed for course reserves are more likely to favor fair use under this factor. Works that are designed for classroom use (for example, worksheets or problem sets) are less likely to favor fair use under this factor.

If you have questions about fair use, you can schedule a consultation with Libraries staff by contacting

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