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Open Educational Resources and Affordable Learning: Copyright & Creative Commons

A guide to discovering, evaluating, and using low cost textbooks and other course materials.

It's useful to understand the relationship between OER and copyright, because OER are defined by their licenses to be modified, shared, and distributed beyond the usual copyright rules. All members of the SUNY Oneonta community should be aware of and adhere to the provisions of the United States Copyright Law; we have an obligation to honor and abide by copyright rules when we use protected works in support of the academic mission. This page does not supply legal advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.

Want more information and resources? See the Copyright, Fair Use & Alternatives guide.

What is copyright?

What is copyright? 

A copyright grants to its owner the right to control an intellectual or artistic creation, including the right to profit from others using the work in specific ways without permission or from the sale and performance of the work. Copyright protection extends not only to copies of the written word and recordings of sound, but to visual images such as photographs, animated images, motion pictures, or videotapes. It also includes taped live performances.

U.S. Copyright Office: This site includes general copyright information as well as information about searching records, publications, and more information.  The FAQ includes a helpful series of responses to the questions "Can I Use Someone Else's Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?"

What does copyright protect?

Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do any of the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • To perform the work publicly (in the case of sound recordings) by means of a digital audio transmission

What kind of work can be copyrighted?

Copyright protection attaches automatically to original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Originality requires that the work was created independently (i.e. not copied from another) and that it embodies a minimum amount of creativity. To be fixed in a tangible medium of expression means that the work can be perceived either directly or by a machine or device such as a computer or projector.

Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, "literary works" includes novels, poetry, compilations, and computer programs. "Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works" includes images, photographs, paintings, maps, charts, and architectural plans.

What cannot be copyrighted?

Certain types of works are not eligible for copyright protection. These include:

  • Ideas, theories, concepts
  • Procedures, methods, processes
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans, familiar symbols or designs, variations of type styles, lists of ingredients
  • Facts
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (e.g. standard calendars, height and weight charts, tables taken from public documents)
  • Works of the U.S. government

These works are in the public domain, meaning they are freely available for use without copyright restrictions.

What is the Creative Commons?

Creative Commons logo

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that established free, standardized, easy-to-use copyright licenses that give the public permission to share and use a creative work on conditions of the authors' choice. CC licenses let creators easily change copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable authors to modify copyright terms to best suit their needs.

Using Creative Commons materials in OER

The OER databases listed on the Find & Evaluate OER page mostly display materials with CC licenses that allow many more uses beyond "all rights reserved". The type of CC license chosen by the author determines how permissive they are about the 5 R's of OER: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. We define OER as materials that DO allow remixing, so CC-ND (no derivative) licenses are not considered OER at SUNY Oneonta.  

Figure depicting range of CC licenses and relative freedom to adapt and redistribute

[Image by Cable Green, Director of Open Education at Creative Commons. CC-BY]

The Creative Commons Search is a search engine for discovering Creative Commons licensed content.

By Cailean Cooney/ CC BY NC 4.0

Creative Commons Citation Example

Mist Lifting off Cedars by dj @ oxherder arts / CC BY-NC-SA