Material in the public domain may be used without limitation by anyone. Materials enter the public domain when their copyright term expires, they are not covered by copyright at all (for example, ideas, titles, most government documents. See Circular 33: Works Not Covered by Copyright), or when they are explicitly donated to the public domain by their creator. Creative Commons has a separate “no rights reserved” designation for works given to the public domain.
It is not uncommon for an instructor to say "Well, I only use things in the public domain" and be referring to items that are merely freely available on the web. These are not the same thing. The vast majority of content on the web, though freely available, is protected by copyright. The copyright term is very long and, because the copyright laws changed several times throughout the 20th century, with changes to the law sometimes being retroactive, it can be challenging to figure out if a given piece of content created in the 20th century is in the public domain.
This chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, provides detailed information about all of the possibilities.
Works created by the Federal government (and some state governments) are not subject to copyright. This applies to works created by employees of the United States government in the course of their duties. Unfortunately, even this seemingly simple idea has a lot of complexity:
Creative Commons (CC) licenses are a way for owners of copyrighted material to retain their copyright while granting some legal uses of their material. The Creative Commons approach is often referred to as “some rights reserved” rather than “all rights reserved”.
Creative Commons states that “One goal of Creative Commons is to increase the amount of openly licensed creativity in ‘the commons’ - the body of work freely available for legal use, sharing, repurposing, and remixing. Through the use of CC licenses, millions of people around the world have made their photos, videos, writing, music, and other creative content available for any member of the public to use.”
Typically, CC licenses require attribution at a minimum. Copyright holders can choose licenses that allow (or prohibit) commercial uses, declare whether adapting the work is permitted, and require the user to also use a CC-license on derivative works. This chart breaks down the options.
Creative Commons licenses are often applied to Open Educational Resources (OER), which are educational materials that are freely available and openly licensed to enable reuse and redistribution by users. Learn more about OERs at OpenCSCU.
For a quick overview of Creative Commons, flip through this guide by Jenna Stebbins, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The CSCU libraries provide many resources for academic use, but simply copying and pasting what is in the URL address bar may not lead you back to the article, video, or ebook that you have found. To ensure that you and others with credentials for your institution are able to link to content in one of your library’s databases, be sure to use a Permanent Link, also called Permalink, Stable URL, or Stable Linking Feature. While most library databases have features for generation of such a link, it may be easier to link to the record for the item in your library’s catalog (see the Search Collections column here for links to the catalogs of the CSCU libraries). To do so, perform a search in the catalog. Once you find a record for the item in your search results, click on the record and then look for the PERMALINK button:
Clicking on the button will generate a stable link to the record. You can then share the record with anyone with credentials for your institution. They will be able to access the record, which in turn contains a link to access the resource.
The rules that govern screening entire movies (as opposed to using clips. See Using Copyrighted Materials) vary depending on the context of the screening. These guidelines are provided to help you determine whether or not your use is covered by Fair Use or whether you need to purchase screening rights for a given showing of a film.
Private screenings do not require you to purchase a license. Private screenings would include only a small number of family and/or friends and must take place in a location that is not open to the public.
Faculty teaching face-to-face classes are permitted to show films in their classrooms (or similar place devoted to instruction) to students in their class. The showing must be limited to people in the class, not open to the rest of campus, in order to qualify for this exception. Please note that linking the film or video through your LMS increases the likelihood of qualifying for Fair Use.
All other screenings of entire films are considered public and a license is required to legally show the film. If you are planning to show a film owned by a CSCU library, you should check with the library to see if any licensing is already in place. You can also avoid the licensing fee problem by using films that are in the public domain or covered by a Creative Commons license.
Occasionally, you will need to purchase “public performance rights.” Licensing for popular titles will likely cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars and can be purchased from major movie distributors such as Swank Motion Pictures, Criterion Pictures, or Motion Picture Licensing Corporation. Independent films may cost less and generally need to be negotiated with the copyright holder.
What about the streaming services?
In the case of streaming services, both copyright laws and the terms of service of the streaming companies will apply. Some Netflix Original documentaries are available for one-time educational screenings as long as you comply with some conditions. Please consult the terms of service for the streaming platform in question - most prohibit public screenings.
“Open CSCU” by the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International License. The individual items included are subject to their respective license provisions. This Copyright Guide is a derivative of Copyright Resources by Portland Community College Library (PCC) and a derivation of the PCC work, Copyright Resources by Naugatuck Valley Community College. The original work, "Copyright Resources," is licensed by PCC under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Nothing in this Copyright Guide should be construed as legal advice.