MOOCs Guidelines


University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
April 2013

This document gives guidelines for using others’ copyrighted content in massive open online courses (MOOCs) developed at the University of North Carolina; Chapel Hill in partnership with Coursera.  For further information and questions contact Anne Gilliland UNC Scholarly Communications Officer (, 919.843.3256) or consult Coursera’s Instructional Support Site.


US copyright law gives the person or entity holding the copyright a bundle of exclusive rights.  These include the rights of:

  • Reproduction
  • Making derivative works
  • Distribution
  • Public performance
  • Display
  • Performance through digital audio transmissions

Creative work is copyrighted as soon as it is fixed in tangible form.  Under current law there is no need for registration or notice (such as the © symbol).   Consequently, you should assume that most contemporary work is copyrighted even if it is available on the open Internet.

Traditional university teaching makes heavy use of copyright exceptions, most notably the face-to-face teaching exception and fair use, to provide text, video, images, and sound to enhance the learning experience.   When using copyrighted content to teach a MOOC, opportunities to use these exceptions disappear entirely or become more restricted.

Options for including others’ content in your MOOC

  • Create your own content to replace others’ content.

As long as they are not too derivative of another’s work, creating your own charts, graphics, and illustrations can be the most straightforward way to avoid copyright problems within your MOOC.

  • Use content that is in the public domain or available under a creative Commons license.

Material that is in the public domain is no longer in copyright.  Sometimes this is because of the age of material.  Other times it is because the federal government owns the material or because the creator has released work to the public domain.  For a comprehensive guide to when works pass into the public domain see

Creative Commons licenses allow creators to preemptively grant a license for certain kinds of use of copyrighted work.  There are several “flavors” of Creative Commons licenses.  Coursera requires that you use material with a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY) that allows commercial reuse.  For more on Creative Commons licenses visit

  • Link to openly available content.

Linking to openly available copyrighted content is always an acceptable option.  Coursera cautions you to provide a “soft” link, not a deeply embedded one.

  • Assert fair use.

The scope of fair use is limited when adding others’ content to a MOOC.  This is because Coursera intends to commercialize many courses eventually and because MOOCS are so widely available to the public.  However, an assertion of fair use may be appropriate when a very small amount of content is reproduced or when the use is transformational, that is, when the use in the MOOC is quite different from the original purpose of the content.

The fair use exception involves a weighing of these four factors:

  • Purpose & character of the use (including whether the work is commercial or noncommercial and whether the work is transformational)
  • Nature of the work
  • Amount and substantiality of the part used
  • Effect on the market or on the work’s value

Using a fair use a checklist can help you think about the fair use factors in an organized way and provide a record of the decision you made.

  • Seek permission.

If your intended use of the copyrighted work exceeds fair use and a substitution is not acceptable, you may want to seek permission from the rights holder to use the work.  It may take 4 to 6 weeks at a minimum to receive an answer to a permissions request.  In general, you should not assume that silence from a rights holder means that permission is granted.

See Coursera’s Instructional Support Site for a sample letter seeking permission.  If the rights holder charges for the license, you will need to identify departmental funds or other money to pay the fee.

Types of material that Coursera prohibits or that we discourage using without permission

  • Popular music
  • Clips from popular films (unless a link is provided)
  • Political cartoons
  • Other highly commercialized cartoons such as cartoons from the New Yorker
  • Trademarks
  • Getty images
  • Other commercially available image collections

Sites with public domain and Creative Commons licensed content

You should take care to examine a work’s individual terms of use before using it in your MOOC.