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Zero-Cost Textbook Adoption: Using Non-Open Resources

This guide offers information and best practices related to the adoption of zero-cost course materials.


Ebooks and other library materials are discoverable in your library catalog and potentially usable in your classroom as an alternative to a traditional textbook.  Even more options exist, such as content found on the open web, which might be subject to traditional copyright (i.e., not Creative Commons licensed). This page will identify options to make these non-open resources available to your students.


The creators of this guide are not legal experts in copyright, nor are we the copyright police. This guide is intended to provide resources, but not advice in regards to what you can and cannot do in your courses. Interpretation of and adherence to copyright law is up to you.

Best Practices

Using library materials and other non-open resources as course materials might be complicated to navigate, but can be made simple if you rely on a few best practices:

  1. Respect copyright, licenses, and your library's policies
  2. Provide a complete citation (author, title, publication, volume and issue number (if applicable), publication year and page numbers (if applicable)
  3. Provide a stable link directly to the resource (including your library's proxy information if neccessary) 
  4. Don't rely on fair use 
  5. Seek permission if in doubt
  6. Contact your librarian with questions

This infographic illustrates the best practices for use of copyrighted materials in a course. A long description of the infographic is available at


Infographic illustrating best practices for use of copyrighted materials in a course. A long description of the infographic is available at

Can I Use it in My Canvas Course? by Manchester University. Used with permission.

Suggested Readings

American University Library (2010). What Faculty Need to Know About Copyright for Teaching.

Benson, Sara (2017). Face to Face Teaching Copyright Exception [Video].

California State University, Chico (2019). Using Copyrighted Works in the Classroom.

Manchester University (2019). Copyright for Faculty.

Teaching Resources on a Spectrum

Consider this diagram when locating materials for your course. It shows the spectrum of copyright restrictions for materials you can potentially use in your course.  As you move around the circle from the top, the content moves from least restrictive to most. A long description of the diagram is available at


Diagram showing the spectrum of copyright restrictions for materials, from least restrictive to most restrictive. A long description of the diagram is available at

Spectrum of Open by Rebel Cummings-Sauls. Used with permission.

  • Public Domain: These materials are not subject to copyright at all. 
  • Creative Commons: CC licensed materials like open textbooks have only some rights reserved. 
  • Open Access: Materials such as articles from an open access journal might be slightly more restricted. 

For the rest of the spectrum, the rules of "open" (the 5 Rs) do not apply.

  • Copyright with No Access Barriers: Some materials might be free to access because the author and/or publisher granted permission for it to be posted online. These materials still have copyright restrictions to beware of.  And remember, even though a resource is free to access somewhere online, it may not be there legally.
  • Library Content: This is a special case, because as a student or faculty member of the owning/licensing institution, access may be granted to copyrighted materials.
  • EDU Permitted: Some copyrighted materials make provisions specifically for educational uses.
  • Fair Use: Using some copyrighted material might be possible if a strong fair use claim is made.
  • Permitted by Copyright Holder: Lastly, another option is to seek permission from the copyright holder to provide the resource to your students


Did you know that PALNI acquired ebooks from Oxford and JSTOR which are DRM free and available to unlimited concurrent users?  Your library may have access to other ebook packages as well, such as Springer, Proquest, and Project Muse.  Search for these titles in your library's catalog, and see a librarian for more information.  
If a book or other resource allows unlimited users, you can link directly to the resource in you library's catalog.  However, some library materials have limited numbers of concurrent users or a maximum total uses, making it difficult for your students to have consistent access to it.  You will want to consider this when selecting an ebook as your textbook.

Database Content

Your library subscribes to electronic databases which may be a good resource for alternative and/or supplemental course readings. Uploading full text/PDF database content directly to your LMS/website likely violates copyright law.  Instead, link to the material according to best practices listed above.


  • Your library may have access to a streaming media subscription, such as Films on Demand.  The same best practices apply when assigning these licensed titles to your students: always provide a citation and a stable link.
  • Beware that streaming videos from personal subscription vendors (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime) is prohibited as stated in each 3rd party terms and conditions agreement.  Note: Netflix has made provisions for educational use of "select" Netflix Original Documentaries. 
  • Showing a personal or library DVD/BluRay copy is covered by a specific copyright exemption (Section 110).

Print Materials

If you or your library legally owns a physical copy of a resource, it may be put on reserve for students to use one at a time.  Other uses would require a fair use claim or permission from the copyright owner.

Fair Use and Seeking Permission

If a resource is neither open or available to all your students via the library, fair use and seeking permission are two ways you might make content available.

Fair Use 

Fair use is a doctrine in the law of the United States that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder.  Reliance on fair use is not an advisable strategy to provide long-term and continued access to course materials, but it could be one way to provide content.  Here are some resources for Fair Use.

Fair Use Evaluator

Fair Use Checklist


Seeking Permission

A better option is to seek permission from the copyright holder to provide the resource to your students.  Here are some resources for Seeking Permission.

Finding owners and getting permission