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Alternatives to copyright

Logos representing open access, creative commons and the public domain

All original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, computer programs, translations and compilations of works are generally protected by copyright, except where the author has been deceased for over 50 years. If you are not certain, assume a work is protected by copyright.

However, in addition to fair dealing – see Fair dealing guidelines – there are a number of important alternatives to using materials protected by copyright, including:

  • Insubstantial use
  • Public domain
  • Open access
  • Creative Commons
  • Links

Take a look at Exceptions to copyright before considering these alternatives. Your intended use of a work may already be covered under these exceptions.

Insubstantial use

Quotation marks

Copying or making use of a portion of a copyright-protected work that is not “substantial” (i.e., even less than the “short excerpt” described in the Fair dealing guidelines) is permitted, and does not require any permission.

The Copyright Act does not define “substantial part”. In determining what constitutes a substantial part, the courts have focused on the quality of what was taken from the original work rather than the quantity that was taken. As a result, no quantitative percentage of a work can be used to determine what constitutes a substantial part of a work. In general, reproducing a few sentences from a periodical article or book as a quotation is not a reproduction of a substantial part of the work. It is not an infringement of copyright if only an insubstantial part of a copyright-protected work is reproduced or communicated, e.g., in a thesis or periodical article.

Public domain

Public Domain Logo

In Canada, copyright protection for most works, such as books and articles, lasts about 50 years after the death of the creator, whether or not the creator still holds the copyright. After copyright expires, a work becomes part of the “public domain” and can be freely copied, distributed, adapted and performed without having to request permission from the author or having to pay any royalties.

For movies and other cinematographic works, it is generally 50 years following the date of publication. Due to historical changes to the Copyright Act, photographs taken prior to 1949 are also usually in the public domain.

Other works may be in the public domain because a copyright holder has chosen to not claim copyrights. The Reproduction of Federal Law Order, for example, permits anyone, without charge or request for permission, to reproduce Canadian laws and decisions of federally-constituted courts and administrative tribunals in Canada.

Some public domain works can be found at the Gutenberg Canada and Project Gutenberg websites. Wikipedia: Public Domain Resources also lists many public domain resources.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons Logo

Creative Commons is an alternative licensing copyright scheme. While traditional copyright, broadly speaking, bars any substantial reproduction unless permission is obtained, Creative Commons licensing offers a “sliding scale” of permissions, which you, as a copyright holder, can adapt to your needs. Documents licensed under Creative Commons offer a wide range of materials which professors can use in their courses, and students can use in their assignments – articles, charts, images, etc. – all without having to request permission.

The easiest way to find documents licensed under Creative Commons is to do a web search which includes the words “creative commons” (include the quotation marks). Creative Commons also provides a more targeted search tool on their site.

Open access

Open Access Logo

Open access is a growing movement in the scholarly publishing world, where authors and publishers make their works openly available to others, without a subscription fee. These works may be freely shared, increasing their visibility. For more on open access and initiatives at the University of Ottawa, please consult our Scholarly Communication page.

The fastest way to determine if a particular academic journal offers an open access option is to search the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists over 9,000 peer-reviewed open access journals. Another useful tool is SHERPA/RoMEO, which summarizes the copyright transfer agreements and self-archiving provisions for many academic journals.


If you are unsure what you can do with a source – whether the amount you wish to use is insubstantial, if it is part of the public domain, or otherwise available under an alternative copyright scheme – it is always possible to link to it if it is already available online. When linking, you should look for official sources (e.g., government websites, news organizations, official YouTube channels) and avoid materials that are clearly infringing copyright. For information on linking to books and journal articles in the Library catalogue, see Linking to full-text articles and e-books.

If the intended use of a work does not qualify for any exceptions or there are no adequate alternatives, permission from the copyright holder is required.

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