Printing Open Textbooks

2 Open Textbook Permissions

Acorn. Anyone, anywhere may print and distribute an unlimited number of copies of an open textbook without asking the copyright holder for permission.

Chapter table of contents

Copyright concerns

The course pack precedent

Printing open textbooks

Copyright concerns

Post-secondary institutions should understand the importance of educating their instructors and students about how copyright applies to teaching and learning, including with regard to the printing of copyrighted materials. Many individuals remain confused about copyright law and are hesitant to print anything, afraid they might be committing copyright fraud. Martin Warkentin, Copyright Librarian at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., says, “Many folks I deal with who are conscientious about copyright are wary about physical printing — the (wrong) gut instinct seems to be printing a substantial part of anything is akin to infringement.”

The open-copyright licence is not the only device designed to make copyrighted educational materials easier to use and print: another is fair dealing. This copyright exception, added to the Canadian Copyright Act in 1921, allows the use and printing of copyrighted works for educational purposes without permission as long as certain parameters are followed.[1] Like copyright in general, fair dealing and how it impacts the printing of course materials is covered in many university and college handbooks. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), for example, their “Copyright Guidelines for UBC Faculty, Staff and Students” includes a section entitled Is copying of the work permitted under the Copyright Act? The Fair Dealing Exception. Adding openly licensed resources to the what-can-I-print discussion can further muddy the waters.

Christina Hendricks, Academic Director for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at UBC, says, “There has been a lot of conversation at my institution over the past few years about ensuring one follows copyright rules when photocopying works, or making print copies of works and distributing them to students. Faculty might be worried that they could run afoul of copyright rules when reusing open educational resources if they don’t have enough knowledge about how open licences work.”

The course pack precedent

The commonly used course pack is a study in how copyright can affect the printing of teaching materials. Examining the course pack’s history provides the context within which educators have operated for the past several decades in order to provide their students with the best learning resources possible.

Course packs are “printed collections of readings assembled by teachers to supplement college and university courses.”[2] The practice of collecting handouts in one packet for a course as supplemental materials or to replace a textbook began in earnest in the 1980s and ’90s, when photocopying became easy. However, it is the fair dealing provision in Canada’s copyright law — followed by landmark decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 and 2012 — that confirmed course packs are permitted and showed how they should be assembled under copyright law.[3]

Since then, instructors who use course packs and the librarians and staff who compile them have been careful during the copyright review phase of course pack creation, a step that requires time and money.

The cost to produce a course pack at UBC through its bookstore, for example, varies depending not only on the number of pages in each packet and the quantity printed, but also on permission fees charged by copyright holders to use content that is beyond the scope of fair dealing or not covered by an institution’s Access Copyright licence.[4]

The University of Victoria (UVic) requires that course pack orders be submitted two months prior to a course’s start date in order to conduct a complete copyright review, including receiving copyright permissions. Copyright permissions for course packs are typically granted for one academic term. This window of permission for a select classroom audience may result in the course pack being prohibited from inclusion in its institution’s course reserve, as is the case at UVic.[5]

More recently, some institutions are asking faculty to consider not only copyrighted materials, but also those in the public domain as well as open educational resources when compiling course packs as a way to save time and money. For an example of institutional recommendations, see Copyright guide for Camosun College and navigate to “Coursepacks” under the “In Class” tab.

Printing open textbooks

Anyone, anywhere may print and distribute an unlimited number of copies of a textbook released with an open-copyright — or open — licence without asking the copyright holder for permission. These openly licensed books are called open textbooks. Unfortunately, says Brendan Hunter, Course Materials Supervisor for the Langara Bookstore in Vancouver, “most people have no idea what the boundaries of open (i.e., open-copyright licences) are.”

Open-copyright licences

Many, if not most, open textbooks are copyrighted. Copyright refers to the legal rights held by the copyright owner of a creative work who is often (but not always) the creator of the material. Typically, copyright holders choose to retain all their rights. What makes an open textbook different from a closed textbook is that, with the former, the copyright holder has released their work with an open-copyright licence. A licence is a contract or agreement by which the copyright holder gives permission to another entity or individual to copy and disseminate their work.

The open licences used most often with educational materials are Creative Commons (CC) licences. Like other copyright licences, CC licences are legal tools. A CC licence gives the copyright holder the ability to provide advanced permission to everyone to use their work. There is no limit to how many times the permissions afforded by a CC licensed work may be used, and these permissions have no expiration date. The only condition imposed when using an open work is that the user must attribute, or give credit to, the author.

For more information, see Copyright and Open Licences and Concerns About Plagiarism in the Self-Publishing Guide.

For how to write an attribution statement, see “Attributions” in the Resources: Captions and Attributions chapter of the Self-Publishing Guide.

For details on how open textbook authors can provide copyright information, and examples of an attribution statement and citation for licensees and readers, see this copyright statement example in the Book Info Page chapter of the Pressbooks Guide.

Public domain

When copyright does not apply to a work because copyright has expired or the author has waived their copy rights, then that work is considered to be in the public domain. This means that anyone and everyone — i.e., the public — can use this work in any way they wish. Examples of creative works in the public domain are Shakespeare’s plays, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Beethoven’s compositions.

Students, instructors, and others are free to print and make multiple copies of textbooks in the public domain. Without copyright in place, public domain resources are without legal restrictions or ownership and thus are bound by fewer conditions than textbooks covered by an open licence. It can be said that:

  • Copyrighted textbooks without an open licence have all rights reserved
  • Openly licensed textbooks have some rights reserved
  • Textbooks in the public domain have no rights reserved

Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear if a resource is in the public domain, though public domain tools do exist for marking these works. Therefore, it is up to the individual to ensure that a textbook or educational resource is without copyright before printing it. Searching in repositories known to hold public domain resources is a good place to start. And even though giving credit to the author of a work in the public domain is not legally required, doing so is considered good academic practice.

For more information, see Licences and Tools in the Self-Publishing Guide.

Media Attributions

  1. “Fair Dealing in Canadian Copyright Law,” Wikipedia, last modified May 11, 2020,
  2. “Coursepacks,” Wikipedia, last modified August 13, 2017,
  3. Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Fair Dealing Guidelines (poster, CMEC website, July 31, 2019),
  4. “Faculty FAQ: Classroom, 2.1 What Are the Copyright Rules that Apply to My Teaching?,” Copyright at UBC, University of British Columbia, accessed April 23, 2020,
  5. “Coursepacks,” UVic Bookstore, University of Victoria, accessed April 23, 2020,


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