An Introduction to Copyright for L&D

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright as “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.” Copyright applies to many different types of creative works: audio, video, photos, animations, illustrations, artwork, poetry, scripts, blog posts, books, online courses, and more.

Here are some common copyright violations I’ve seen in L&D that I want to warn you against:

  • Copying and pasting images from Google into your learning materials
  • Editing out the watermark on a stock image so you can use it
  • Clipping sound bytes from a movie on YouTube for your course
  • Using a well-known company’s trademarked logo for your eLearning portfolio without permission or without clearly stating that you don’t work for the company and that your work is for example purposes only
  • Copying content verbatim from other creator’s courses without permission or attribution
  • Using a sample-only audio clip from a paid site

If you have done any of these things, you are very likely in violation of copyright, and you could face a lawsuit with heavy penalties. 

So, how do you make sure that the assets you’re using to create a learning experience are free and clear for you to use?

Copyright law is expansive and covers a multitude of creative media. In this article, we’ll talk about the parts that apply most often to the kinds of assets we use and the things we create in L&D.

1. Educate yourself on what different license agreements mean

We’ll talk about some of the most common license agreements you’ll find in L&D here. 

Public Domain or CC0 

Works that are in the public domain (also known as CC0 in Creative Commons) are free for use by anyone for anything. This also means that they cannot be owned by anyone. These works have the least restrictions for use.

Why would something be in the public domain? The main reasons are: 1. because the copyright has expired, 2. because copyright law doesn’t protect the type of work in question, or 3. because the creator has dedicated their work to the public domain.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization who has come up with a way for people to grant copyright permissions for their creative work in a way that allows their work to be copied, edited, remixed, and built upon without legal obstacles. 

There are 6 different license types you can read about here, but they are all some combination of the following rules for use:

  • Attribution: you can distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the original work as long as you give credit to the original creator.
  • Share Alike: you can distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the original work as long as you license the modified material under an identical license type as the original work.
  • Non-commercial: you can distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the original work, but you cannot use it for commercial purposes (to make money).
  • No Derivative: You can copy and distribute the material in any medium or format, but you cannot remix, adapt, or build upon it. You must use the original work in its unadapted form.

Don’t forget that there is also CC0, which we discussed previously. This means that you can use and remix the asset however you want, without having to attribute the creator or use an identical license. You can also use CC0 assets for commercial purposes.

Creative Commons has a huge library of stock assets that you can use, called the Openverse. Not only can you find great resources, but the CC license type is clearly marked on each asset.


A lot of paid stock asset sites will have what is called a royalty-free license. What this means is that you pay a one-time fee (in the form of a one-time payment or a subscription to a stock asset website) to use an asset as many times as you want. You’re basically paying once for unlimited use of an asset. 

This is the opposite of what is called a rights managed license, where you pay a one-time fee and can only use the asset as specified. Again, most paid stock websites operate under the royalty-free license, but it’s always good to check the agreement. 

2. Don’t use something if you don’t understand its terms of use or license agreement

Every major asset website has a section where they explain the terms of use and license agreement for using the items on their site – whether the website is free or paid. Even though we talked about some major license types to familiarize yourself with, there are always variables, depending on your source. It’s important to read the fine print if you want to make sure you’re protected against copyright violation.

For example, Canva’s Content License Agreement spells out the difference between assets used on their paid plan versus their free one, what types of use are prohibited, and special cases you might encounter. 

Paid subscription sites also have explanations on how to properly use assets – by paying for usage or a subscription, you are automatically agreeing to these terms, so it’s important that you understand them. Envato Elements License Terms for their individual and team licenses describe usage, what is prohibited, and what to do in special circumstances. 

If you’re uncertain of a tool or website’s licensing terms, you can typically Google the name of the company and “license agreement” to be taken to a page that outlines their terms of use and license agreements.

We used the U.S. definition of copyright at the beginning of this article because the U.S. has some of the highest standards for intellectual property. However, there are global laws for copyright, and depending on where you live and work, different rules may apply. It’s important to understand the copyright rules for your country as well as the rules for things you’re using on the internet.

3. Examine the myths surrounding Fair Use

A lot of people I’ve encountered in L&D say that they aren’t worried about copyright because of the U.S. Fair Use Index. However, there are a lot of myths surrounding Fair Use that make people feel comfortable and confident using resources without permission. 

Kayleen Holt, an instructional design consultant and founder of Scissortail Creative Services has a fantastic blog and course on Copyright and Fair Use for L&D, including the myths surrounding Fair Use and how you can determine if your projects fall under that umbrella.

Finally, if you’re unsure of what you should do – err on the side of caution. Use Openverse or another reputable site that clearly labels the assets. Make sure there is room in your budget for the assets you’ll need. Educate yourself and the people on your team.


Creative Commons. “About CC Licenses.” Accessed October 30, 2022.

Creative Commons. “2.2 Global Aspects of Copyright.” Accessed October 30, 2022. 

Kayleen Holt. “Copyright and Fair Use for L&D.” Accessed January 2, 2023. 

Openverse. Accessed October 30, 2022.

U.S. Copyright Office. “U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index. Accessed January 2, 2023.,protected%20works%20in%20certain%20circumstances

U.S. Copyright Office. “What is copyright?” Accessed October 30, 2022.

Blog thumbnail photo by Dariusz Sankowski

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Stock refers to something available for use or sale. In learning and development, you might hear terms like stock photos, stock videos, or stock assets, which refer to multimedia assets that can be used for learning projects for free or for a fee.
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