Module 6

What Do I Need to Know About Licensing?

This module simplifies a very complex subject. This module is offered for information only, and is not a substitute for legal advice.


A licence is, at heart, about permission. In the context of copyright, a licence is about the permission granted by the copyright owner to another person to use a copyright-protected work, subject to negotiated terms and conditions, such as payment.

Often, licences are negotiated between a copyright owner and a user, outlining the specific ways in which someone can use a work for a limited period of time. In this way, licences frequently look like commercial agreements or contracts. However, because a licence is, at heart, about permission, a licence can be granted informally, including over email and in some cases, it may even be spoken and be no less valid and enforceable.

Each institution will have a different approach to licensing content so it’s important to check what licences are in place at your university. Ask the person or office designated to answer copyright questions or check your institution’s copyright guides. Your university library is a good place to start.

There are many types of licensed content that you will encounter at your institution. Let’s discuss library-licensed content first.

Your institution licenses a broad range of digital content, which may include journal articles, e-books, data sets, and streaming media for authorized users. Authorized users may use this media in various ways; permitted uses for any given asset may be indicated in your institution’s library catalogue.

Permitted uses may include:

  • linking to content and sharing it with your students,
  • downloading a copy of the material and posting it to your institution’s learning management system or another password-protected space, and
  • the ability to include content in course packs.

If it’s not clear to you what you can do with library-licensed content, ask at your institution’s library.

Collective societies represent creators and copyright owners who produce content of a similar type, such as written material or music. Members authorize the collective society to issue licences and collect royalties on their behalf.

The collective society licences that cover the copying of copyright-protected works within a post-secondary educational institution are with Access Copyright or, if you are in Quebec, Copibec. Universities may have licences with other collectives such as SOCAN that cover uses on campus such as the playing of music at public events. A list of copyright collective societies is available on the Copyright Board of Canada’s website.

Universities with Access Copyright or Copibec licences can reproduce a certain amount of a published work that is included in the collective society’s repertoire, which may include books, journals, and magazines.

How do you know if your institution has a licence with Access Copyright or Copibec? Check with the person or office designated by your university to answer copyright questions. They can also tell you how to follow the terms of any collective licence your university may have.

When you want to use copyright-protected works in ways that are not outlined in your university’s copyright practices or guidelines, library licences, or open licences, you may need to obtain permission from the copyright owner for your use. This may involve obtaining a pay per use licence otherwise known as a transactional licence.

Transactional licences grant permission to use copyright-protected works, usually for a specific time period, and may require payment to the copyright owner. A transactional licence is usually an agreement between the institution and the copyright owner.

For example, you may require a transactional licence to scan four chapters from a 10-chapter book and post them in your online course.

Your institution may have resources available to help you determine if a transactional licence is required and how to obtain it.

The process for obtaining permission will vary depending on the copyright owner. Some scholarly publishers and platforms provide a copyright permission request link on their website. In other cases, you may have to send a request, in the form of a letter or email, to the copyright owner. It’s important to be specific about how you are going to be using the material you are requesting. Obtaining permission can take anywhere from a few days to many weeks; give yourself plenty of time. All licences, even informal ones between you and a colleague, should be in writing and kept so that there is a record of permission.

In addition, you may encounter many other types of licences in a university environment. Here are a few examples:

  • software licences;
  • publisher licences that spell out the terms and conditions for using supplementary material, such as slides or quizzes that accompany textbooks;
  • subscription licences to e-resources specific to your department; and
  • open licences, such as Creative Commons licences (which we will talk about in a separate module).

Always refer to the licence when you want to know how the material may be used.

What about licences you enter into yourself, such as Netflix or iTunes? Can you use these resources to help teach your students? Generally, the answer is no; these types of licences are usually for personal use only.

For more information on how to make use of licensed content, consult the person or office your institution has designated to help with copyright questions. Your institution’s library is a good place to start.

Go to Module 7.