Are online courses technically protected by copyright?

The answers to the most common questions when dealing with online courses

When designing their eLearning offer, many lecturers are faced with the question of the extent to which copyrighted materials can be integrated into online courses and which rules must be observed in individual cases. The multitude of possibilities offered by learning and teaching platforms for the integration of text, image, audio and video files is often opposed to complex copyright issues that are not easy for the individual to understand.
However, the copyright provisions must also be observed when using the teaching and learning platform.

Special regulations for online teaching content at teaching and research institutions

Section 52a UrhG grants training, professional and advanced training institutions for non-commercial teaching and research purposes the web-based access to third-party works even without obtaining additional permits.

Below you will find the answers to the most common questions we receive in connection with the use of online courses.

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What types of media can I use in my online course?

Since, in principle, all personal intellectual creations - regardless of whether they are literature, art or software - enjoy copyright protection, copyright law does not distinguish between media types when making them publicly available. But regardless of the university privilege that § 52a offers, moral rights must be strictly observed, that is, only small parts of works that have already been published may be offered for retrieval.

In any case, however, it must be used for teaching purposes and only in a closed and therefore limited group of participants. It must therefore be ensured, in particular technically, for example through password protection, that access to the materials is only possible for the relevant event participants. The limitation to an entire subject area or even the entire teaching or research facility is not permitted and is not covered by the exception regulation of § 52a UrhG.

EXCEPTION: However, particular care should be taken with materials designed for use in school. Due to stricter regulations, separate permits must also be obtained from the relevant textbook publisher for use in network-based learning environments!


Which media types are NOT allowed to be included in my online course?

Although the limitation regulation § 52a UrhG in connection with the right to quote (§ 51 UrhG) offers a lot of leeway, the teaching purpose does not always justify the means! In any case, the inclusion of materials that were designed for school lessons as well as copy-protected content is excluded from these regulations. If it is necessary to include school teaching material, rights of use must be obtained from the publisher concerned and, if necessary, remuneration concepts negotiated.

For copy-protected media, however, there are no exceptions: The copy protection must not be bypassed under any circumstances! This also applies in particular to content from the Internet if it can be assumed that it was created unlawfully. Particular caution is required with file sharing sites!



Who can access my online course?

In order to prevent an improper invocation of the special regulation of § 52a UrhG, this limitation provision is linked to compliance with numerous conditions. These should be checked carefully in each individual case before the online material is made available (cf. media checklist). Among other things, for the special provisions to take effect in teaching taught online, it is necessary that the copyrighted content is made available to a narrowly defined and delimited group of users exclusively for teaching needs.

Design online courses in such a way that independent and uncontrolled registration is not possible, and instead protect your virtual learning room, e.g. with a password query, or set up an e-mail request procedure for your participants. In this way you ensure that only authorized course participants have access to your course content.


Is guest access to my online course problematic?

Guest access is always problematic if you have insufficiently protected a content area with third-party content. In this case, guests, i.e. system users without a connection to your course, can freely access, download and use this content. In such cases, the barrier § 52a UrhG does not apply, because the anonymity of the type of use does not meet the requirement of a teaching situation between the teacher and a narrowly defined group of participants.

As a provider of third-party content, this would interfere with the author's exploitation rights and thus a clear violation of copyright law; for guests, on the other hand, such a download of content for their own use would generally be rated as reproduction for their own use (Section 53 UrhG).

However, if you take some precautionary measures, you can of course still arouse the interest of potential course participants in your course with a guest preview. Essentially, you should pay attention to the targeted placement of the relevant information and block all other content areas from being accessed. In addition, it is advisable to provide comprehensive contact information for the course management or the responsible contact persons for any questions.


What alternative is there to the direct integration of content into my online courses?

Particularly in the case of images, audio and video files that are already available on the Internet, there is often uncertainty with regard to their further freedom of exploitation. In principle, however, copyright protection is to be assumed here, which as such must be safeguarded in two ways: In addition to the provisions of Section 52a UrhG, it must be ensured, as far as possible, that the material used was lawfully produced and, on the other hand, must also be included when third parties are involved Content in your online course will continue to be unequivocally identifiable as the source.

Since checking the Internet sources is not always easy and only rarely can even the last doubt about the legality of content be dispelled, it is therefore advisable to include links to the relevant content or pages for the integration of such content. In this way, you may avoid dangerous acts of duplication. However, if you have any doubts about the legality of the content, it is advisable to refrain from links in these cases! This recommendation is primarily aimed at the use of media files from illegal file sharing networks.


*) Is it allowed to use images from the Internet freely for my eLearning offer?

According to § 52a UrhG, pictures can be considered as works of small size and these may therefore be included in an online course if this is required by the teaching purpose and if they contribute to better understanding. The reference to the source and the naming of the author are also essential for image material from the Internet. The inclusion of picture elements for purely decorative reasons is not taken into account in this regulation and is by no means permitted.

For the integration of images, the linking of images can be a good alternative to the direct upload in the course. However, the specified URLs should be checked regularly to ensure that they are up to date.



Are links harmless?

Links are generally harmless in the context of online courses. Links to obviously illegal content should be avoided. The same applies to the embedding of external content using a so-called embed code, e.g. from YouTube or other media portals.