I want to create an online course and use someone's book as the basis (follow the structure, topics) and as a textbook (use exercises, examples, etc). Note that I'm not going to distribute any parts of the book to my students.

What might be the legal issues here? How do physical universities deal with them?

  • Most universities have one or more people responsible for handling copyright issues. I would find who these people are at your university, and run it past them (with all the details) to make sure that everything is fine.
    – hunse
    Nov 20, 2013 at 23:32

1 Answer 1


I cannot see any problem with this as long as no copyrighted material is accessible in such a way that it breaks the copyrights of the book. Although the outline of a book probably can be considered the intellectual property of the author (and possibly the publisher depending on copyright), I doubt anyone would object since the purpose of writing a (course) book is to provide a product to support teaching of a specific topic. The structure of a book can often be the most logical way of presenting the material. The key issues is rather if you reproduce parts of the book such as providing the exercises on-line. As long as participants must obtain the material in the book on their own you should not worry. From this perspective it is no different from a normal university course (where it is also illegal to copy and distribute material freely from a book (or equivalent).

So for an on-line course, you just need to be very careful with reproducing text or figures from copyrighted materials in ways that breaks the rules. You can also contact the holder of the copyright (author/publisher) to obtain the right to provide parts within the course. The success of this may depend on the system you use for on-line material and what file formats you use for distributing the materials. Such details will likely be made clear by the copyright owner if you ask.

  • 1
    If we're talking about the US, then the second paragraph overemphasizes the strictness of copyright law. Fair use typically allows a professor to do the things you describe without needing to beg for permission from the publisher (which is, after all, getting an exploitative amount of money from the professor's students). Fair use is like any other civil liberty -- if you don't use it, you're in danger of losing it.
    – user1482
    Nov 20, 2013 at 16:47

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