If you’ve taught even a single class, you’ve likely read or even written an academic honesty policy. Colleges and universities give much attention to preventing plagiarism among students—and rightfully so—but an equally important concern is helping instructors avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement when selecting materials for their online classes.

Following are five scenarios online instructors often encounter when gathering materials for their courses. Read each scenario and try to decide whether the instructor is committing copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither, and then click the verdict to see if you’re right. If you need a refresher on copyright and plagiarism, see our article “Copyright and Plagiarism: The Bare Minimum Instructors Need to Know.”

Using Work From One’s Own Previous Publication

Professor Ivan has been teaching business management for 40 years. He’s an expert in his field and has coauthored several editions of a premier introduction to business management textbook, published by a leading educational company. However, as part of his institution’s efforts to keep the cost of education down, he decides not to assign a textbook for his online class, but instead finds several online articles, videos, and open educational resources to use as instructional materials. As he reviews his materials, he notices a few gaps and decides to use some passages from the latest edition of his book to supplement. He knows that scanning published textbook pages is probably not legitimate, so he just copies and pastes a few paragraphs from his proof copy of the book into the readings and introductions for each module, and he decides to read a bit of content out loud in a couple of his video lectures.

Is Professor Ivan’s use of the work copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither?

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Verdict: Copyright infringement (and plagiarism).

Although Professor Ivan wrote the textbook, his publisher is actually the copyright holder, so he must treat any passages from the book as if they belong to someone else (because they do!). Professor Ivan could request permission from his publisher to use some of the textbook in his class, or he could potentially use some passages without permission, as long as he provides reference information and complies with fair use guidelines. In addition, even if he takes work from an unpublished edition or a work he holds the copyright to, Professor Ivan must use proper citations and comply with fair use standards to avoid the issue of self-plagiarism (Creutz, 2010)

Paraphrasing From a Textbook

Professor Merriweather has found the perfect textbook for her history course. Each chapter has an excellent overview of the main topics, and she thinks these overviews would also work great for her module introductions. However, Professor Merriweather knows that copying that much text into the course would probably not fall under fair use, so she decides to paraphrase them. She takes each overview and rewrites it point by point, paragraph by paragraph, to make sure she doesn’t miss anything. She includes proper citations and references so students know the original source, and she uploads the content to her secure, password-protected learning management system.

Is Professor Merriweather’s use of the work copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither?

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Verdict: Plagiarism.

Even though Professor Merriweather uses citations, it is still considered plagiarism (not paraphrasing) to use the same sentence or paragraph structure of the original source (The Writing Center, n.d.). To resolve this issue, Professor Merriweather may want to consider using more than one source to help her write her course introductions. She could also require students to purchase the textbook so she can assign the overviews as course readings, or she could try to find an open educational resource to replace the materials from the textbook.

Embedding Videos

Professor Green is teaching an exercise science course online for the first time, and he finds it very frustrating not to be able to call students to the front of the classroom to demonstrate certain techniques as part of his lectures. He’s relieved when he finds a series of short YouTube videos that show people doing some of the exact techniques he wants to share with his students. He embeds a few of the videos into his lectures in the learning management system so that the videos stream from YouTube. He also provides reference information for each video on the page in which it appears.

Is Professor Green’s use of the work copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither?

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Verdict: Neither.

Professor Green’s use is legitimate. YouTube videos are freely available to all Internet users, and embedding the videos (rather than downloading the video files and then uploading them to the learning management system) sends traffic to the owner of the video for any potential monetization considerations. Under the TEACH Act, Professor Green can use short materials that would normally fit into a traditional class meeting and that are relevant and essential to his educational purposes (American University Library, 2010; Hoon, 2007). In addition, Professor Green avoids plagiarism issues by clearly giving credit to the original source. If Professor Green had wanted to play a full DVD or videos located behind a paywall, he likely would have needed to seek the copyright holder’s permission or use only small portions to qualify for fair use.

Uploading a Journal Article

When gathering materials for her online literature class, Professor Sloan remembers an excellent article that she used for her dissertation 20 years ago. Because it is an old article, her school’s library does not have it readily available online, but she requests it far enough in advance that the librarians are able to track it down, obtain the license, and send it to her as a scanned PDF. Because it would be very cumbersome and time consuming to ask her students to do the same thing she had to do, Professor Sloan uploads her copy of the article to the learning management system for the students to read there during the course.

Is Professor Sloan’s use of the work copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither?

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Verdict: Neither.

Professor Sloan’s use is legitimate. School library licensing (and fair use guidelines) typically allows instructors to upload legally attained articles to their learning management systems (American University Library, 2010, p. 14; Hoon, 2007, pp. 9–10). If Professor Sloan had e-mailed the article to students or posted it to the class’s Facebook group, that would be a violation of the TEACH Act because she did not attempt to limit the use of the article to a password-protected classroom only for the duration of the course.

Using Images in Lectures

Professor Owen usually teaches art history, and he prides himself on his beautifully crafted PowerPoint lectures that integrate text, images, and videos very effectively. He’s used the lectures for a few terms now and has made sure they meet copyright standards. However, this term, his department head asks him to take on a modern art course too. Feeling a little out of his element, Professor Owen uses his art history PowerPoints as a template to begin constructing his modern art lectures. Even though they’re not terribly relevant to modern art, he retains a few of his favorite art history images to fill out the PowerPoints. Before the class begins, he again makes sure that all the images are properly cited and that the number does not exceed what would be considered appropriate for a single class session.

Is Professor Owen’s use of the work copyright infringement, plagiarism, or neither?

Click to reveal

Verdict: Copyright infringement.

Although Professor Owen meets several standards of the TEACH Act, he fails to meet the standard about his use of the art history material being directly related to teaching content (American University Library, 2010; Hoon, 2007). He may be able to make a case for fair use, but again, because his use is decorative at best and because he’s using whole images rather than just portions, his use may not meet copyright and fair use standards under the scrutiny of a court.


American University Library. (2010). What faculty need to know about copyright for teaching. Retrieved from https://www.american.edu/library/documents/upload/Copyright_for_Teaching.pdf

Creutz, R. (2010, December 1). Self-plagiarism: Is it really plagiarism? Retrieved from http://www.ithenticate.com/plagiarism-detection-blog/bid/52948/Self-Plagiarism-Is-it-Really-Plagiarism

Hoon, P. (2007). Using copyrighted works in your teaching FAQ: Questions faculty and teaching assistants need to ask themselves frequently. Retrieved from http://www.knowyourcopyrights.org/storage/documents/kycrfaq.pdf

The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (n.d.). Plagiarism. Retrieved from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/plagiarism/