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Open Educational Resources Collective Publishing Workflow

Check Copyright

Determining Whether Content is Safe to Re-Use or Requires Permission

When adapting or developing an open textbook, it’s best to use content that’s openly licensed or in the public domain.

It’s easy to assume content available for free on the internet is safe to use, however this isn’t always the case, so you’ll need to check the copyright terms or licensing conditions. Be aware that even if something looks like it should be in the public domain, it might be a secondary source or someone’s interpretation of a public domain work. For example, a photograph of an old painting or a specific edition or translation of an old text may be copyrighted and have restricted rights.

If the content you want to use isn’t licensed for re-use or adaptation, you’ll need to get permission from the copyright holder before including it in your textbook.

Following these steps will help you determine whether content is openly licensed, public domain or requires permission to use:

  1. Look for a copyright notice – This usually includes the copyright symbol ‘©’ or the word ‘Copyright’ followed by the year the work was created (and therefore copyrighted), as well as the name of the copyright owner.
  • Example – ‘Copyright 2018 Lauri Aesoph’.

(A copyright notice doesn’t automatically mean you can’t use it. Most open resources are copyrighted, which is why you’ll need to…)

  1. Look for a statement of rights – This outlines the conditions of use or permissions granted by the copyright holder (e.g., using a Creative Commons licence) and is often part of the copyright notice.
  • Example – ‘Copyright 2018 Lauri Aesoph. This guide is released under a Creative Common Attribution 4.0 International Licence’.
  1. Look for related terms – If you can’t see a copyright notice or a section of the website called ‘Copyright’, this information could be under another heading like ‘Terms and Conditions’ or ‘Rights and Permissions’.
  2. If you still can’t find any copyright or licensing information – If content isn’t clearly marked as public domain or with an open licence, assume the copyright holder doesn’t allow re-use and that you’ll need to get permission.
  3. If one-time permission has been granted by the creator – Creative Commons licences allow unlimited re-use. However, sometimes content authors had to apply for permission to use isn’t covered by the book’s licence.
  • Example – ‘[Book Title] is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence, except where otherwise noted. All images contained within this book retain their copyright or original Creative Commons Licences and can only be re-used under their respective licences’ (often followed by a list of exceptions).

This is usually because the creator granted special permission for one-time re-use that doesn’t extend to adaptations like yours. In this case, you’ll need to either remove this content from your adaptation or contact the creator yourself to renegotiate permissions.

To make copyright checking easier, remember to keep track of any third-party content you use, along with:

  • copyright and licensing information
  • details of permissions requests
  • where and when you found it

in a spreadsheet like the University of Toronto’s OER Content Tracker.

Getting Help with Copyright Checking

If you’re not sure if the content you want to use in your open textbook is openly licensed, public domain or requires permission, speak to your university’s copyright team for more specific advice.


Adapted from ‘Resources: Only the Open’ in Self-Publishing Guide by Lauri M. Aesoph, licensed under a CC BY 4.0 licence.

Working with Authors to Check Copyright

Good copyright practice is critical to the success of an open textbook project. Sitting down with authors and working through the information in the 'For Authors' section of this step is a helpful strategy for ensuring everyone understands when content is safe to use and when to get permission. Encourage authors to keep track of any third-party content they want to use, along with copyright and licensing information and permissions requests and share this documentation with everyone on the authoring and publishing teams.

Planning for the Library's Contribution

Authors will require input from library staff at key points in the production process, across all stages of the workflow. Read through the guides in the workflow to see where library staff will need to work with authors on tasks such as copyright checking, peer review and publishing. Review the authors' time line and make a note of when you might expect to be called on to provide assistance.